Published in Children’s VoiceVolume 32, Number 1

by Elaine Arsenault

Special Education Surrogate Parents (SESPs) are volunteers designated to make special education decisions for students in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) or students whose parents are unknown or unable to participate in the special education decision-making process according to state and federal education law (34 CFR 300.519 (f)). The students they support reside in a variety of living situations, including residential schools, group homes, hospitals or pediatric nursing homes, state institutions, diagnostic placements, or shelters, and are receiving special education services.

Students in state custody are one of the most at-risk groups for poor school outcomes. Many transitioning into foster care have been traumatized, taken from the homes they have known, and frequently moved during their time in the program (Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, 2019). This, combined with the effects of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, has had a negative impact on students’ social emotional needs, which can lead to behavioral and mental health difficulties and compromise their ability to engage with schoolwork. Children in foster care get suspended or expelled from school three times more often than other students (Massachusetts Court Improvement Program, 2019).

According to a recent report by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), in Massachusetts only 58.1% of kids in foster care graduated on time in 2020: the lowest four-year graduation rate of any group measured, with the next-lowest graduation rates among students experiencing homelessness (64.2%) and English-language learners (68.3%; Massachusetts Legislature, 2021). Youth transitioning from foster care without a high school diploma have greater incidents of drug use, homelessness, and contact with the juvenile justice system that can lead to adult incarceration. To have any measure of academic success, these youth require a higher level of educational support to succeed. At the Recruitment Training and Support Center (RTSC; see, in collaboration with our partners at the Special Education Surrogate Parent Program (SESPP)—a project of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)—our mission is to ensure that every child in state custody who is receiving or should be receiving special education services gets the educational support they need to succeed by training volunteers and pairing them with students.

These include, but are not limited to, the right to:

• Access all regular and special education records of the student, including all progress reports and report cards.

• Provide written permission for special education evaluations.

• Review all education evaluations.

• Attend all special education Team meetings.

• Request a Team meeting when there are concerns or changes regarding your student’s academic, social, or emotional status.

• Observe your student in their school setting to assist in determining the appropriate educational supports and placement(s).

• View special educational placements that are being considered.

• Review and accept or reject the proposed Individualized Education Program (IEP), in whole or in part, within the 30-day time frame.

• File a complaint if you feel that the education laws, regulations, or a student’s rights are violated.

• Pursue the appeals process, if necessary.

SESPs are not responsible for medical, clinical, residential, or financial decisions. Their time commitment is usually 30-40 hours per year, depending on the student, with a one-year commitment. With students returning to classrooms in person, there is a greater need for Special Education Surrogate Parents to be involved. To learn more about this essential program, see

Elaine Arsenault is a recruiter and trainer for the Recruitment Training and Support Center, a project of the Federation for Children with Special Needs. She is a member of the Family Advisory Committee to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and a former SESP. She is a foster/adoptive mother of five children, two of whom special needs who are adults living happily on their own.


Code of Federal Regulations. (2022). Part 300 – Assistance to states for the education of children with disabilities. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.

Massachusetts Court Improvement Program. (2019). Stable Placement, Stable School: Improving Education Outcomes of Children in Foster Care in Massachusetts. Author.

Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. (2019). Annual report FY2019. Author.

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2018). 603 CMR 28.00: Special Education. Author. https://www.

Massachusetts Legislature. (2021). Report S.D. 2860: DCF FY21 Annual Report. Author.