Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Wanted: Surrogate parents

By Louise Kinross

Any parent of a child with disabilities will tell you that advocating for a good education for their child can be one of the most challenging, time-consuming and even soul-destroying experiences. It doesn't seem to matter if you live in Canada, the U.S., Europe or elsewhere. It is always a battle. 

So, what happens when a child doesn't have a parent who can argue for the kind of schooling and supports they need?

In the state of Maine, they're looking for volunteers.

Last week I watched this news item about a program that's recruiting "surrogate parents" to advocate for disabled students. 

The volunteer "would...take the place of their biological parent in Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings, visiting with the student [and] really advocating...in terms of their education," said the program coordinator Staci Fowler.

I googled the program and hopped on the Department of Education's web site.

There I found a 67-page PowerPoint for training surrogate parents, which is an excellent overview of special education in the U.S. (this could be a great resource for all parents).

The volunteer's role is to "interact with the school in the same manner that any parent would," reads one of the slides.

That includes visiting the child and the child's school regularly; consulting with those involved in the child's education; reviewing the child's records; attending Individual Education Plan meetings; exercising judgment in pursuing the child's interests; and exercising the child's due process rights.

I checked with Staci Fowler, the coordinator, and the program has 41 volunteers. They include teachers, special-education directors, education students and parents of children with disabilities. Many volunteers support more than one student. Most students are in residential care. At this point, no students are waiting for support. However, "even though we don't have kids waiting right now, we get several requests in a week," Staci said.  

The program is federally mandated and exists in each state, with some variations in how it's carried out, Staci said. For example, Maine pays for the volunteer's mileage, while some states pay a stipend for the person's time.

Staci said most volunteers have been supporting students for years.

It's hard to imagine how capable people could be recruited to take on such a daunting, long-term, unpaid taskone that has been known to bring parents deeply invested in their children to their knees.

But perhaps because these volunteers have expertise in the education system, and a bit of emotional distance from the work, they can be effective.

It seems to me that every parent advocating for a disabled student could benefit from a surrogate parentto coach and support them through the process. 

The job just became more tenuous in the U.S. with the announcement that its Education Department has rescinded 72 policy documents that outline the rights of students with disabilities, part of the Trump administration's plan to scrap regulations they say are outdated, unnecessary and ineffective.

To learn more about volunteering in Maine's surrogate parent program, e-mail stacia.fowler@main.gov.