Attorneys and psychologists joined forces to present best strategies for advocating for the assessment and referral of children to school-sponsored special education programs during a session on educational testing at the 11th National Conference on Children and the Law.

Common roadblocks for child-welfare professionals attempting to advocate for special education services for children include getting permission from official guardians and understanding what resources the children have rights to, said attorney Kathleen McNaught, JD, of the National Child Welfare Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues.

She recommended that psychologists, social workers and attorneys examine school procedures to be sure the needs of children in special education are being met as called for by state and federal laws, and to be an advocate for the children if these rights are not being met.

Understanding the special education referral and assessment process can also be an initial challenge, said psychologist Ron Palomares, PhD, APA's assistant executive director for policy and advocacy in the schools.

Anyone, including a teacher, student, parent or guardian can request that the school evaluate a student to determine if they are eligible for special education services. However, once a student has been evaluated, a school committee, often called the Individual Education Planning (IEP) team, makes the final decision if the student meets state and federal criteria for a special education handicapping condition and what services they will receive, Palomares said.

Advocates can help children by asking questions to cut through jargon and confusing policies and by contacting a school's evaluator to share information about the child and links to other professionals working with the child, he said. Also helpful, speakers noted, is doing the initial groundwork to obtain consent signatures that allow the school to talk with appropriate providers and begin testing, particularly if the child is in foster care and the official guardian's identity is unclear.

"The school is responsible for the education of the student," McNaught said. "But if these students aren't being educated, and requests for testing are being met slowly or not at all, this is the point where we may want to get the courts involved to make sure evaluations don't take an exorbitant amount of time."