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Who can act as a surrogate parent for students with disabilities?

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The federal regulations for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes many provisions to protect the rights of parents and their child with a disability while also giving families and school systems means by which to resolve disputes. The IDEA also describes how a parent or other caretaker can participate in decisions about the child’s need for identification, evaluation or services needed as a student with a disability. In order for the law’s protections to work effectively, every child with a disability or a suspected disability must have a “parent” who can act on their behalf.

In general, the IDEA allows only a “parent” to act on behalf of a student with a disability. The federal law distinguishes several categories of persons in their definition of the term parent. These parents may be:
• A birth or adoptive parent
• A foster parent
• A guardian who has the authority to act as the child’s parent or who has the authority to make education decisions for the child
• A family member with whom the child lives who is caring for the child, such as a grandparent, step-parent, or someone who is legally responsible for the child’s welfare or
• A surrogate parent.

Under the law, foster parents and relatives with whom a child lives can all be “parents” who have the power to make special education decisions for a child in their care. These children may also have a living birth or adoptive parent whose parental rights have not been terminated and may also qualify as the child’s special education decision maker. The law says that whenever a birth or adoptive parent is attempting to act on behalf of the child for special education decisions, the school must treat that parent as the decision maker. The school can only accept the decision of another person when the birth or adoptive parent is not attempting to act on behalf of the child or unless a judge has appointed an alternative decision maker for the child.

If it is determined that a child is in need of a surrogate parent, the public agency must appoint one. A surrogate parent has all the educational rights within the special education system and can make the special education decisions or early intervention decisions which are typically made by a child’s parents. Surrogate parents can review educational records, request and consent to evaluations and re-evaluations, as well as challenge the recommendations of the education agency by asking for mediation or by requesting a hearing.

In order to serve as a surrogate parent for students with disabilities, training is required. Please check with your State education agency for more information regarding this topic.