Grabbing the Wrong End of the Stick on Educational Stability for Foster Youth

vanFor decades, children in foster care have endured multiple school changes as they moved between foster homes and other placements. With each move there is another school placement, with some children and youth changing schools several times in the same year. This is not a satisfactory situation, especially because many children who are placed in foster care have already endured many school changes and long periods of absence from school, leaving them already behind academically.

But in order to bring about educational stability for foster youth, legislators  have grabbed the wrong edge of the stick. Rather than keeping foster youth near their original schools, Congress has passed legislation requiring education and child welfare agencies to transport children from new foster homes and placements to their former schools, no matter how long it takes and how much it costs.

The Every Student Succeeds Act  (ESSA) requires school systems to transport foster children to their original schools “whenever it is in their best interest.” There is nothing wrong with the legislation as written. Clearly, young people should be transported to their original schools if it is in their best interest. The question is, when is it actually in a child’s best interest to be transported to their original school?

Is it in their best interest to be in a van for up to four hours a day as the driver stops to pick up different children going to different schools? Is it in their best interest to be transported by a private services that gets them to school late daily? Is it in their best interest to be unable to participate in extracurricular activities because they have to be picked up right after school ends? Is it in their best interest to spend agency money that could be used for tutoring or therapy on transportation? These are all common problems that I observed as a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia when the children on my caseload were being transported to their original schools from their Maryland foster homes.

Some child welfare agencies, advocates,  and journalists seem to think that being transported to their original schools is always in the best interests of foster children.  But those who work directly with foster youth know better. As Margaret Henry, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, wrote in a powerful column, “Why spend money transporting children for hours to their home school, instead of working harder and more creatively to find them placements in their home school’s district?”

The contradictions of this backwards approach to educational stability are illustrated by a recent case that could have major implications for the education of foster youth nationwide, according to Dan Heimpel of the Chronicle of Social Change. “V. Doe” entered foster care in Rhode Island at the age of six in 2005 and had moved a dozen times by 2017. In May 2017, while she was living in a group home in North Smithfield, RI, the school district decided to move her to a special school for youths with disabilities and mental health issues after she had several altercations with other students at her high school.

Reportedly, V. Doe began to thrive at the new school and completed her junior year, hoping to graduate in 2018. But Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) decided to move her into a foster home–a placement that soon disrupted. Rather than returning her to the original group home (perhaps it was full?), she was moved to a residential facility in another school district.

DCYF determined that it was in V. Doe’s best interest to stay in the North Smithfield School. The North Smithfield school district agreed but (reasonably) refused to pay now that V. Doe was no longer living in there (and had been there for less than a year). DCYF filed a petition with the State Department of Education arguing that the district’s action violated ESSA. The Education Commissioner agreed and required that she be re-enrolled immediately at the private school, with North Smithfield picking up the costs.

The advocates who are praising this solution seem to be missing some key points about what caused the problem and who is paying for the fix.

A DCYF youth who has bounced between foster homes and group placements a dozen times was finally thriving in a group home and a specialized school. Why did DCYF choose to move her out of the district just before her senior year in high school?  Could V. Doe be a victim of the fashionable assumption that “every child needs a family,” which not coincidentally happens to save money for the state as well? Unfortunately, V’s placement in the foster home did not last and now she was stuck in a new group home. The premature removal of young people from group care, to be placed in homes where they will be shortly kicked out, is also something that I observed as a social worker in foster care.

And then there is the issue of who pays the costs of DCYF’s mistake. V. Doe moved and out of multiple school districts in a demented game of musical chairs. The district that finally found a school that was right for her got stuck paying the costs until graduation. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a centralized state fund (in either the education or child welfare department) for foster youth in this situation?

The backwards approach to educational stability embodied in ESSA is reminiscent of other false fixes for foster care, like legislation attempting to solve the shortage of foster homes by requiring more training for foster parents. It is not a coincidence that these approaches are often easier and cheaper (at least for the child welfare  agency) than policies that would get to the root of the problem. Instead, policies should aim at finding placements that are closer to students’ original schools . Readers wanting examples of better policies can see my recommendations and those outlined in Judge Henry’s column.


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