System-induced School Absenteeism: The hidden scourge of foster care

EveryDayCounts“Faith,” an 18-year-old high school senior that I know, has already missed four days of school without ever being sick. You see, Faith is in foster care and lives in a group home. She missed one day for a morning court hearing and one day for a morning clinic appointment. Both days, Faith was brought back to her group home because nobody had time to take to her school in Maryland, which she was attending before being returned to foster care from a failed guardianship. Another missed day was for a 12:30 clinic appointment. The logical solution would be to schedule her appointments after school, but that is impossible because the group home staff are busy picking up six girls from six different schools in different parts of the city or Maryland suburbs. Faith is a senior and has to pass every one of her classes in order to graduate this June. She failed a class last year due to excessive absences, but none of many adults involved in her case seems to be making the connection between going to school and graduating.

When it comes to missing school, Faith would probably not be any better off in a foster home. As a foster care social worker for five years I learned that the paraprofessional family support workers who took our clients to all of their appointments (because their foster parents refused to take time off from work) always scheduled these appointments during school hours. That’s because these workers were busy after school transporting children to visits with their parents. 

I remember hearing about another social worker’s client, who was failing in school.  This young lady had recently come into foster care after years of neglect and had more than a dozen cavities. In a school meeting to find out why she was failing, school staff informed the social worker that the missed class time was making it difficult for this young woman to complete her assignments. Apparently, scheduling visits out of school time had never been considered.

So I was not surprised that Faith’s appointments were scheduled during school hours and that nobody was available to take her back to school in Maryland, resulting in her missing a full day of school for each. Never mind that the Mayor of the District of Columbia has a campaign against school absenteeism entitled Every Day Counts, citing facts like “Missing just two days a month can put students at risk of academic failure.” I wish Faith’s social worker and group home staff knew that. And I wish the Mayor knew that another part of her government was sabotaging this campaign among the very students most at risk of failure.

In addition to staff constraints due to resource limits, one reason for this widespread disregard of the value of school attendance is an attitude shared by many social workers, foster parents, group home staff, and foster youth themselves, that absence from school is fine as long as it is excused. After all, schools must call Child Protective Services when a student has a certain number of unexcused absences.  Excused absences don’t seem to matter, regardless of the reason for the excuse. Nobody at school asks if the child had to miss a whole day due to a 30-minute medical appointment. And I have seen at least one case when a parent who was at risk of having her child removed due to neglect was encouraged to go to school and retroactively excuse all her child’s absences.

I know this problem is not unique to the District of Columbia. In Kentucky, the Lexington Herald-Leader published an excellent article about foster children’s educational disadvantages. Education officials told the reporter that “foster children are too often pulled out of the classroom for various meetings, appointments, and discussions linked to their status as a foster child, sometimes including visits from social workers or guardians ad litem.”

The problem of system-induced absenteeism among foster youth likely exists around the country, and I hope to hear from readers with examples. So it is not surprising that studies suggest that children in foster care are about twice as likely to be absent from school as other students. This higher absenteeism rate is probably just one among many reasons why educational outcomes for foster youth are so much worse than for the general population. Nationally, only 65% of foster youth complete high school by the age of 21, compared with 86% among all youth aged 18-24. Estimates of the number of foster care alumni who attain a bachelor’s degree range from 3% to 11% compared with 32.5% for the general population.

Of course absenteeism that is not caused by the foster care system itself is also a large problem, especially among older foster youth. That is another, more complex issue that is related to the long history of trauma and school failure as well as inadequate placements. But  the system itself should not be contributing the absenteeism for students who want to attend and do well in school. There should not be a trade-off between health care and education. 

So what can be done to ensure that foster youth are not kept out of school by the foster care system? Child welfare agency leaders must establish from the top that being in school every day is a priority. Agency policy should be that all court hearings, appointments, and meetings take place outside school hours unless there is a documented reason this cannot happen.

Observance of this policy can be monitored only through data sharing between the child welfare agency and the school system. A very helpful fact sheet from the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education provides information about what some jurisdictions are doing to address school absenteeism among foster youth, including data sharing. Jurisdictions should follow the example of Allegheny County PA, where child welfare social workers are able to easily access education data, including attendance. (See Roadmap for Foster Care and Education Data Linkages for more information about how to address the barriers to such linkages.)

Every child welfare agency should have one or more education liaisons for each school or group of schools who have access to all school data including attendance data and reasons for absence if possible. These liaisons should monitor these data  and contact social workers as soon as there is evidence of excessive absenteeism. Kids in School Rule! is a collaborative program between Cincinnati Public Schools and the Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services. It includes child welfare-based education specialists who have access to real-time data to alert them when a child is absent so that they can intervene quickly.

Clearly, many students in foster care are attending school more regularly than before they were removed from their homes. But when the system removes children, it must not to continue the neglectful parenting that may have brought them into the system in the first place. Foster care should be a time for youth to make up for past disadvantages, rather than fall further behind.