Chicago is not alone in its struggle to improve the education of foster children. Researchers agree that foster children face similar obstacles in school no matter where they live. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there were 556,000 children in foster care in 2000. The number of foster children in Cook County this year was pegged at just over 15,400, according to DCFS records.
The following roadblocks were outlined in studies by the Vera Institute for Justice in New York and by the Child Welfare Research Center at the University of California:
Lack of coordination and data sharing between school and child welfare agencies often result in foster children not getting services they need. Yet, some child welfare officials resist sharing information out of concerns for children’s privacy and fears that they will be stigmatized.
Foster children are highly mobile and often must transfer to new schools. If they have to wait for their records to catch up, they miss valuable school days, which can happen several times a year.
Frequent court appearances and other appointments cause foster children to miss school, making it difficult for teachers to keep them up to speed in their work.
Foster children’s own embarrassment about their situation can make them shy and withdrawn from peers and teachers, preventing them from making the personal connections they need to succeed.
High turnover among caseworkers can aggravate children’s feelings of loss, separation and anxiety and increase their uncertainty about the future. This compounds any difficulty they may have concentrating in school.
Foster children are more likely to be in special education than are children who live with their parents. Caseworkers and foster parents may be distracted or unfamiliar with the schools and, therefore, unable to advocate for special needs services or keep schools from placing their children in special education unnecessarily.
Solutions to the problems commonly experienced by foster children vary from district to district. “A few champions are making things happen,” observes Ted Greenblatt, education director of Treehouse, a nonprofit devoted to serving foster children in Seattle.
Treehouse and other agencies in Washington are supporting a state bill that addresses the high mobility rate among foster children. The measure would allow foster children to remain enrolled at the school they attend for the first 60 days of a new home placement. Nearly half of all foster children return home within that time frame anyway, one bill sponsor told the Seattle Times.
In New York City, the public schools and the child welfare system have been working since 1997 to match their records on foster children. “It’s still not perfected,” says Eric Nicklas, who oversees data management for the city’s child welfare agency.
The Vera Institute of Justice recently concluded a three-year pilot project to help foster children at four Bronx middle schools. The program, called Safe and Smart, installed full-time education specialists at each school to counsel the children and hold workshops to help teachers better understand the effects of separation anxiety and psychological trauma. But the program ran over budget, and school and child welfare officials have no plans to resume it.
In California, a state program called Foster Youth Services has made headway in easing school transfers by eliminating delays in forwarding school records. Education liaisons who work for the state child welfare agency are now responsible for keeping track of school records for foster children.
The program pays special attention to foster children who live in group homes, a particularly mobile population whose records are often lost.
Another California county found a way to ensure health records for foster children followed them when they transferred to new schools. Problems arose when children could not prove they had been immunized and were required to have unnecessary shots to enroll in a new school. San Diego County created a database that matched health and education records for foster children in all of its districts and hired educational liaisons (similar to those in Chicago) to link schools, foster caregivers and caseworkers.
Tracy Fried, a program coordinator, offers one example of how such efforts have benefited foster children in California. Last year, an education liaison intervened on behalf of a male foster child who was about to turn 18 and drop out because some of his school credits were missing, she recounts. The liaison’s efforts helped the boy graduate high school on time, she says. “[San Diego] County is trying to identify resources so that all foster youth have access to an educational liaison.”