Law Office of Justin Shane | Special Education Attorney
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Updates and thoughts of a special education attorney/lawyer on Special Education Law.

Who is a "parent" under the IDEA?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act creates certain rights for parents of students with disabilities. “Parent,” however, can mean many things. Caregivers often ask whether they count as “parents” under the IDEA. This question comes from step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and many other individuals responsible for the care of children with special needs. The issue also arises in the case of parents that have been divorced.

The place to start is the IDEA, which addresses this question directly, at least in part. The IDEA defines the term “parent” to include “(A) a legal guardian; and (B) except as used in sections 1415(b)(2) and 1439(a)(5) of this title, includes an individual assigned under either of those sections to be a surrogate parent.” 20 U.S.C. § 1401(19).

Perhaps recognizing that the statutory definition is not a model of clarity, the Department of Education’s regulations elaborate on the term. 34 C.F.R. § 300.20 states as follows:

(a)    General. As used in this part, the term parent means –

(1)    A natural or adoptive parent of a child;

(2)    A guardian but not the State if the child is a ward of the State;

(3)    A person acting in the place of a parent (such as a grandparent or stepparent with whom the child lives, or a person who is legally responsible for the child’s welfare); or

(4)    A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with § 300.515.

(b)    Foster parent. Unless State law prohibits a foster parent from acting as a parent, a State may allow a foster parent to act as a parent under Part B of the Act if –

(1)    The natural parents’ authority to make educational decisions on the child’s behalf has been extinguished under State law; and

(2)    The foster parent-

(i)                  Has an ongoing, long-term parental relationship with the child;

(ii)                Is willing to make the educational decisions required of parents under the Act; and

(iii)               Has no interest that would conflict with the interests of the child.

The excerpted part of this regulation merely defines who may qualify as a “parent” under the IDEA, but does not vest parental rights to any one party. The regulation, however, further states that when more than one party is qualifies as a “parent” under this definition, the birth or adoptive parent “must be presumed to be the parent … unless the biological or adoptive parent does not have the legal authority to make educational decisions for the child.” If a judicial decree identifies a party as having the authority to make educational decisions for the child, the regulation deems that individual the “parent” under the IDEA. Such a judicial decree would typically be made by a family law judge in state court.

Various courts in the Second Circuit and New York State have weighed in on what constitutes a “parent” under the IDEA. In Taylor v. Vt. Dep’t of Educ., 313 F.3d 768 (2d Cir. 2002), the court considered the rights of a non-custodial, biological mother. The mother sought funding for an independent educational evaluation from the school district. A divorce decree entered by the Vermont family court awarded full custody to the father, including “all legal rights and physical rights regarding the choice of schooling for the child.” The court concluded that the mother had no right to seek an IEE under the IDEA because the state divorce decree granted educational decision-making authority to the father. The decree, however, provided that the mother “shall have a right to reasonable information regarding the child’s progress in school and her health and safety.” Thus, the court concluded that the mother had a right to information concerning the student under the IDEA.

In Fuentes v. Bd. Of Educ., 12 N.Y. 309 (2009), the New York Court of Appeals addressed educational decision-making authority when a divorce decree in New York is silent on the issue. In this case, the wife was awarded full custody of a student with blindness that received special education services. The father, however, sought a review under the IDEA of the services and accommodations provided to the child. The court concluded that when a divorce decree is silent on the issue, the custodial parent controls the educational decisions of the child. The father, therefore, did not have standing to challenge the student’s special education program under the IDEA.

Finally, in Brock v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Educ., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44254 (S.D.N.Y. March 31, 2015), the child’s mother and grandmother brought claims under the IDEA. The school district sought to dismiss the claims of the grandmother on the grounds that she did not have standing as a “parent” under the IDEA. The court first concluded that the grandmother qualifies as a “parent” for IDEA purposes because she lived with the child, received Supplemental Security Income on the child’s behalf, and signed the child’s school enrollment contract. Further, the grandmother could assert an IDEA claim in this instance because she was responsible for the student’s tuition as a signatory to the enrollment agreement. The student’s mother, the court concluded, also had standing to assert IDEA claims. The court suggested, however, that if the mother and grandparent disagreed on an issue, or the mother challenged the grandparent’s standing, the court may result in a different outcome.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive review of the law on this issue. If you have a question about your rights under the IDEA, contact the Law Office of Justin Shane.

Justin ShaneIDEA, parent