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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as One-on-One

One-on-One

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One of the biggest challenges facing child-welfare workers and educators is their underlying mistrust of one another.

The success of the foster-care system has always been calculated in terms that have little to do with how a child is faring in school. Words such as "permanency" and "reunification" are commonly used to describe a child's home and family situation, but little, if anything, is said about academic performance or what children are likely to do after they "age out" of the system at 18.

But Treehouse and similar projects are trying to change that by collecting and monitoring school performance data on children in foster care and urging child-welfare agencies to do the same.

"One of the things that has been an ongoing frustration for me is that these case outcomes are not kid outcomes. We measure success by when the kid gets out of the system, not by what happens to the kid," says Mei Lan Loi. Until July, Loi was a planner at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City, where she worked on a project in which a caseworker from the city's children's services administration was assigned as a liaison to a middle school in Brooklyn. The caseworker provides individual and group-counseling sessions to a handful of foster children and serves as a contact for teachers.

A private, nonprofit agency, the Vera Institute works as a consultant to local, national, and international government agencies on criminal and juvenile-justice issues. A middle school was chosen for the project in an effort to reduce delinquency among young adolescents.

Loi's goal was to see "a body of caseworkers" throughout the city trained to focus on foster children when they are hitting their adolescent years and to increase education and other services to children in their early teens.

To give these programs a chance at success, Loi believes that paid professionals, rather than volunteers, need to work with the children.

"You need people with certain skills. This is not just about getting nice people who want to do some nice things for kids," she says. "These kids need some extreme structure. You can say, 'I will take you home and buy you pizza,' and they still won't come."

Like Loi, the University of Illinois' Altshuler also found the middle school years to be a critical time for young people in foster care. After working with students for two years--in focus groups and through a mentoring program--she particularly noticed their achievement starting to slack off during the last quarter of the school year.

To her, the slippage suggests "that they are very anxious about the summer, and they see school as a safe place."

Most efforts to draw attention to and improve educational results for children in foster care are small, pilot-level programs unconnected to any national network or organization. But one large-scale project under way in New York City could permanently change the way the school system and the child-welfare agency operate there, as well as influence other districts and agencies around the country.

About 1 ½ years ago, Nicholas Scopetta, the commissioner of children's services in New York City, and Rudolph F. Crew, the chancellor of the city's school system, reached an agreement to share data in a way that would reveal just where the city's 40,000 foster children go to school and how they are progressing.

In addition to making data on such information as repeat school absences available to children's services, the "memorandum of understanding" included the appointment of school system and child-welfare liaisons who would work together on cases. The new relationship between agencies also includes joint staff-development courses.

"When you have two systems that are providing services for the same family, the same child, it's incumbent upon the systems to collaborate," says Pedro Cordero, the director of interagency affairs for children's services.

Another collaborative project is taking place across Massachusetts. It began on a pilot basis in the middle of the 1996-97 school year and has now grown to reach roughly 500 children in 15 districts.

"The goal was really to try to get the different groups to communicate better--teachers, foster parents, and social services," says Susan Stelk, the education coordinator for the state department of social services.

In addition to assigning a liaison to work with the schools and the caseworkers and offering training to the various parties involved, the project has provided direct services to children in foster care, such as tutoring, after-school activities, and psychological counseling.

Both private and public foster-care programs are also trying harder to find homes for children in familiar neighborhood surroundings-and near their schools.

While information was collected on all 551 of the children involved in the project, 41 of them were followed more closely by an outside evaluator, who found small improvements in school attendance and behavior over the course of last school year.

More telling were the numerous anecdotal accounts of better relationships between foster parents, school personnel, and caseworkers, Stelk says.

The plan for the coming year is to reduce funding slightly in some districts while expanding the services to districts that serve more children in foster and adoptive homes.

The Massachusetts project has been paid for with state money so far, and this year it received $470,000. But Stelk hopes the local communities will be able to pay for the activities in the future.

Both private and public foster-care programs are also trying harder to find homes for children in familiar neighborhood surroundings--and near their schools--even though they might be losing a parent.

A 1980 federal law called for such arrangements, but the reality has been that children are often placed outside their communities because of a shortage of foster families.

Children in foster care often miss big chunks of the school year because they are so mobile. And with the transfer of student records sometimes delayed in the process, administrators and teachers often don't know how to serve incoming foster children.

After reviewing Treehouse's data from last year, it became clear to Keating, the director of the agency's tutoring program, just how damaging a disruption during the school year can be.

"What we're finding is that every time a child moves, they go through a period of not being able to re-engage," she says. "They are obsessed with 'Where am I going to go?'"

Sometimes, she adds, they just shut down and quit talking.

A few schools have found creative ways to provide the transportation necessary to keep children from changing schools--yet again.

Gatzert Elementary School in Seattle, for example, receives extra money from the district to cover transportation costs for homeless children, and it is extending those services to children in foster care.

"If they move across town, it doesn't mean they have to lose their school," says Randy Riley, an intervention specialist at Gatzert.

Keating is pursuing a legislative package in Washington state that would include some funding for transportation so students in foster care wouldn't have to change schools so often. She also wants the state to create a program specifically for foster children in middle school that would give them added support in preparing for high school. And she wants full college scholarships for those students when they graduate.

Both Texas and Florida already offer tuition waivers to foster children who want to attend college.

While most of the projects that seek to bring educators and social workers closer together are just getting off the ground, one program in California dates back to 1972. The Foster Youth Services Program provides tutoring and counseling to children in foster care in six school districts.

But Robert Ayasse, a social-services liaison for the Mount Diablo district, east of San Francisco, wrote in a 1995 article that one of the most valuable things the program does is track down school transcripts and other important documents, such as birth certificates and immunization records. Often, there are big gaps in these students' education histories because of their transience. When they need to start accumulating credits for graduation, turning up the records becomes even more critical.

Foster Youth Services, which served about 3,100 children last school year and received $1.4 million from the state, is one of a few programs to receive state aid--and to receive it for so long.

But Ayasse believes attention to this issue will continue to grow, thanks in part to changes in states' welfare systems under the 1996 federal welfare-reform law. "The percentage of foster kids who end up on public aid is astronomical," he says.

Research shows that anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of former foster children wind up on welfare as adults. Moreover, adolescent girls in foster care are twice as likely as other girls in their age group to get pregnant, according to Kathy Barbell, the director of foster care for the Child Welfare League of America.

Showing foster parents how to better navigate their way through the school system and become advocates for their foster children is key to helping schools address these students needs.

Experts recommend that schools of education train new teachers on how the child-welfare system works and inform them about some of the common effects that foster care has on children. Teachers should also be more careful about asking students to do such assignments as making a family tree or bringing baby pictures from home, says Lynne Steyer Noble, a senior consultant for the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

"It's not so much that school people want to be mean. It's that they don't know in a lot of cases what goes on with these kids," says Noble, a foster parent for 20 years. She also conducts training workshops for new foster and adoptive parents, as well as caseworkers.

But Allan, the principal in Seattle, believes that teachers should be shielded from some information about their students so they can concentrate on teaching.

Showing foster parents how to better navigate their way through the school system and become advocates for their foster children is another key to helping schools address these students' needs, Noble says.

Foster parents, however, are often handicapped by the fact that biological parents generally retain many decisionmaking rights in the education of their children, particularly when it comes to special education.

A not-uncommon scenario, according to caseworkers and foster parents, is that school officials might believe a child needs to be tested for special education, but the birth parents won't give permission. They might be angry with the school in the first place for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect.

Such situations further complicate the relationship between schools and social workers and keep students from getting the instruction they need.

Other foster parents note what they describe as a prejudice against children in foster care and an automatic response from the schools to label such youngsters with a behavior disorder or learning disability.

"The first place the school wants to stick them is in special education," says Pearl Graham, a foster parent from Austin, Texas, and a former teacher.

A 1992 study on the use of special education services by foster children in Illinois found that more than six times as many foster children were receiving special education as had been identified by the state's children and family-services department. Researchers concluded that social workers didn't know enough about the needs of the children they were responsible for.

Shirley Hedges, the president of the National Foster Parent Association, based in Crystal Lake, Ill., and a foster parent for 23 years, says she eventually home-schooled some of her charges because they were constantly being sent home from school for disruptive behavior. She also served on the local school board in Hopkins County, Ky., for eight years, and saw to it that foster parents were invited to serve on local school councils.

Fortunately for Daniel, the Seattle 11-year-old, his foster "grandmother," 70-year-old Cornelia Bosley, is one of those advocates. She enrolled him in a Catholic school this fall because she was worried about how he would fare in a public middle school. She's also in the process of adopting him.

"Daniel's got some tough little ways, but he's come a mighty long way since he's been with me," Bosley says, as Daniel steps out on the patio to play with a Nerf toy that Keating brought him.

Bosley also gives Treehouse much of the credit for Daniel's improvement.

Daniel, whom Keating describes as a "little Denzel Washington," had the chance to share his own thoughts recently at a citywide fund-raiser. He and hundreds of other foster children were given scholarships to attend summer camp, and the proceeds from the evening were going to the Treehouse camp program.

Going to camp, Keating says, has been Daniel's first successful social experience--one of the first places he hasn't been kicked out of.

"Campfire in the evening was a time for talking about the day, for saying positive things about each other and singing songs," Daniel read to the audience from a speech that Buonato helped him write. "Every night, I went to bed feeling very tired and very, very happy."

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Pages 45-49

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