A Brief Overview
- Parent participation in IEP process is a protected right for students with disabilities. If a student doesn’t have a family caregiver or legal guardian to advocate in their behalf, a surrogate parent is assigned to fill that role.
- A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child.
- The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).
If a student eligible for special education services does not have a family caregiver, adoptive parent, or other legal guardian fulfilling the role of parent, then a surrogate parent is assigned to ensure the student’s rights are protected. The surrogate parent fulfills the family caregiver role on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team and advocates to ensure the student’s needs are met.
A surrogate parent is an individual appointed by the public agency (usually a school district) responsible for the student’s special education services. Schools are responsible to assign a surrogate parent within 30 days after recognizing the need. Note that a child who is a ward of the state may be assigned a surrogate parent by the judge overseeing their case.
If a private individual, such as a neighbor or friend, has explicit written permission from the student’s parent or guardian to care for the student, a surrogate parent is not required.
A student 18-21 is responsible for their own educational decision-making unless they have a guardian to exercise their legal rights. A school district is responsible to assign a surrogate parent for a student declared legally incompetent or if an adult student with a disability asks for a surrogate parent.
A surrogate parent is required for a minor student when the parent cannot be identified or located or if parental rights have been terminated. A student’s parents are considered to be unknown if their identity cannot be determined from a thorough review of the student’s educational and other agency records.
A student’s parents are considered unavailable if they cannot be located through reasonable effort that includes documented telephone calls, letters, certified letters with return receipts, visits to the parents’ last known address, or if a court order has terminated parental rights. A parent is also considered unavailable if unable to participate in the student’s education due to distance or incarceration.
If a parent is too ill to participate at a meeting, either in person or by phone, that parent has the option of giving another individual written permission to act for them.
An uncooperative or uninvolved parent is not the same as an unavailable one. A surrogate parent is not assigned because parents choose not to participate in their child’s education.
A child identified as an unaccompanied homeless youth by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is an example of a student who would be assigned a surrogate parent to support them within the special education system. Children with surrogate parents might live in foster homes, nursing homes, public or private group homes, state hospitals, or correctional facilities.
In some cases, a state agency has guardianship of a student with a disability: That student requires the assignment of a surrogate parent.
Foster parents need to be formally appointed by the school as surrogate parents if they do not have legal guardianship. Relatives without formal kinship rights also can be designated as surrogate parents within the special education process.
A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child. However, an unaccompanied homeless youth may be supported by appropriate staff from an emergency shelter, street outreach team, or other agency temporarily until a surrogate parent with no conflict of interest is appointed.
A surrogate parent must have knowledge and skills that ensure adequate representation of the student. A community volunteer, guardian ad litem, or other invested adult might serve as a surrogate parent. The surrogate parent must commit to understanding the student’s strengths and needs and how the educational system is structured to support the student’s services. Ideally, the surrogate parent lives near the student and is a match for providing culturally appropriate help in the student’s language.
The surrogate parent represents the student in all matters relating to special education identification, evaluation, and placement and works to ensure that the student receives a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from their school-based services.
The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).
Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) includes some downloadable resources about the surrogate parent in its Special Education Resource Library.
PAVE is here to help all caregivers, including surrogate parents. For direct assistance, click Get Help to complete an online Help Request Form.