Conflicts of Interest in Special Education: Part 2 – Outside Professionals

Parents are frequently unaware of possible conflicts of interest in special education. As we wrote in our previous blog article on conflicts of interest for school personnel, you must always try to be aware of the subtle, but real possibility that a school employee may act in the best interest of the school district first and put your child’s needs second.

But conflicts of interest are not limited to school personnel. Conflicts can also occur with the outside professionals you hire to perform evaluations, make recommendations for services, or advocate for your child. This sort of conflict is less understandable than with school employees, which is why you have to select outside professionals carefully.

What Sort of Conflicts Occur for Outside Professionals?

Conflicts of interest for professionals outside the school district occur when they have personal, professional, or financial ties to school administrators and employees. The fact that you are paying for a professional’s time does not always guarantee objective or appropriate advice or services.

Here are a few examples of the potential conflicts that a professional may have:

  • The professional might regularly get referrals from the school district for evaluations or services, such as counseling or occupational therapy. This person might not want to jeopardize future income from referrals by recommending that the district provide expensive services even when they are needed.
  • The professional may have developed relationships with certain teachers or administrators in the past. These relationships could influence how a professional writes an evaluation report or advocates for your child.
  • The professional might have a child in the same district, or even the same school, as your child. If that is the case, this person may not advocate strongly for your child out of fear that there might be consequences for their child.
  • We have even personally encountered a situation in which an outside professional was (unknown to us) seeking employment in our school district at the same time she was performing an evaluation of our son. This situation is unethical and casts a cloud over the professional’s objectivity.

Even if these kinds of conflicts seem unlikely, they do exist, which is why you need to carefully screen any outside professional you are considering.

How to Find the Right Professional

The first step in considering an outside professional is to determine what personal, financial, or professional ties this person might have with your school district. Establish that this person considers you and your child as their client. Ask direct and specific questions, because you need to know this information.

Questions you should ask include:

  • Does the professional receive any money, directly or indirectly, from your school district?
  • Does the professional expect to get future referrals from the district for their business?
  • Does the professional have children or other relatives in your school district?
  • Will the professional attend Team meetings and advocate for your child?
  • If the school has referred you to the professional or offers to pay for the professional’s services, ask if this person regards you and your child as their client and not the school.
  • If necessary, will the professional testify at a mediation or a hearing on behalf of your child?

The answers to these questions will reveal potential conflicts of interest. The last question in particular is a crucial one if you think you might have to go through mediation or a due process hearing to obtain an appropriate education for your child. If you are comfortable with the answers to your questions, then there is a good chance that the professional will be working in the best interests of your child and not be conflicted by other interests.

What You Can Do

Your goal is to be an educated consumer of the services that professionals offer when evaluating children and making recommendations for accommodations and proper educational placement. To help you achieve this, we recommend the following:

  • Review the code of ethics for any professionals you are considering. Organizations for lawyers, psychologists, and psychiatrists, for example, all require ethical behavior from their members, especially when it comes to acting in the best interests of their clients. Check to make sure that your outside professional is a member of an organization with such a code.
  • Check the license status of anyone you are considering. A professional who is licensed by the state has met higher standards than someone who is unlicensed. Most states have a Division of Professional Licensure website where you can search for an individual’s license status.
  • If your school offers to provide the services of an outside professional at no cost to you, consider such an offer carefully. This usually means that the organization offering this service (for example, counseling for parents and children), has a contract with the school and receives payment directly from the school. Their employees might be restrained in their recommendations so as to not lose this contract. If this makes you uncomfortable, consider using an organization that is financially independent from your school district.

As you can see, it requires time and effort to find a professional who is truly independent and has the freedom to write objective evaluation reports and advocate for appropriate services. But all this effort will be worth it to secure an appropriate education for your child.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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