Children who are taken from their parents because of abuse or neglect carry an enormous emotional burden. So it comes as no surprise that research has found that, on average, they do not fare well in school and are at increased risk of dropping out.
“Foster kids are more likely to have academic problems, behavioral problems and mental health problems,” says Ted Greenblatt of Treehouse, a foster care advocacy group in Seattle, Wash., that is lobbying for changes in state law to ease the plight of foster children.
The governmental systems responsible for these children have yet to rise to the challenge of meeting their educational needs. For starters, their record keeping and sharing are so bad that it’s hard to craft targeted solutions.
As a joint investigation by Catalyst and The Chicago Reporter shows, many foster children are concentrated in a handful of public schools. In Chicago, 20 percent of children whose legal guardian is listed as “non-relative” were enrolled in just 32 schools, mostly in the poorest neighborhoods on the South and West sides. The data analysis by Maureen Kelleher of Catalyst and Sarah Karp of the Reporter also found that there are more schools now with a high concentration of foster children than there were 10 years ago. In 1991, only two schools, both for special education students, had enrollments that were at least 10 percent foster children; by 2001, the number was 42 schools.
Compounding the problem, these schools receive few, if any, extra resources to help the foster children. Child welfare advocates, such as Thomas Vanden Berk, CEO of Uhlich Children’s Home, say the state and school districts must step up to the plate. “If they are going to put all these foster children in a couple schools, then they have to put some money in these schools,” he declares.
Both the state Department of Children and Family Services, which is responsible for foster children, and the Chicago Public Schools have taken some tentative steps in that direction. For the last two years, DCFS has put up $1.5 million a year for extra social workers at schools with the most state wards.
All but one of the seniors who were served by the program last spring graduated and half of them went on to college. This year, school officials are convening a task force to study the education needs of highly mobile children. The committee’s work will culminate in policy recommendations in time for next year’s budget cycle.
Similar efforts in other cities also are worth examining. Earlier this year, a public policy law firm in Pennsylvania released its own recommendations for removing bureaucratic obstacles that interfere with a foster child’s enrollment in new schools. Seattle-based Treehouse is sponsoring a state law that would reduce mobility by allowing foster children to remain enrolled at the same school for the first 60 days of a new home placement.
School improvement efforts don’t always have to cost more money, but in this instance, there’s little way around it. Foster children need more counseling, and overburdened teachers, who are not trained to handle emotional trauma, cannot be expected to do it. If CPS or DCFS hired more counselors and psychologists out of current budgets, they would only be robbing Peter to pay Paul.
State legislators must step in. Without a substantial and timely commitment of extra resources for schools with high concentrations of foster children, the children for whom the state itself is responsible will not get a fair shot at improving their lot in life.
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