Foster Youths Said To Get Little Help With Educational Deficits

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 12, 1991 17 min read

Rather than pointing a finger at the foster-care system, experts acknowledge that the abuse and neglect that many foster children suffer in their family lives before entering foster care are at the root of the educational and social problems they face in school.

But data showing that foster children’s educational achievement continues to lag behind their peers’ well after they have entered foster care suggest the “combined child-welfare and education systems do not see to it that the child overcomes his initial handicap,” said Charles P. Gershenson, a senior policy analyst for the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

“Much too little attention has been given to education, or when given, it has been too late,” Trudy Festinger concluded in her book No One Ever Asked Us: A Postscript to Foster Care, based on her 1983 study of 300 young adults who grew up in foster care in New York City.

“We, by and large, haven’t provided the kind of tutoring a child might need to get over early deficits,” Ms. Festinger, a professor at the New York University School of Social Work, said in a recent interview..

Fueled by such factors as increased reports of child abuse and neglect and substance abuse among parents, the growing numbers of children entering foster care and their increasingly complex problems are posing challenges to state and local child-welfare systems nationwide. (See Education Week, June 5, 1991.)

According to new data released by the American Public Welfare Association last week, 407,000 children were in foster care by the end of 1990, a 49.1 increase since 1986.

As the problem has grown more acute, courts have been forced to intervene in child-welfare systems in some places, and key child-advocacy groups have placed new emphasis on the need to ameliorate the living conditions often associated with foster placement.

In addition, the issues are gaining attention in the Congress, where legislation calling for broad reforms in the foster-care system has been introduced and is pending action. (See story, following page.)

But most of the child-welfare-reform efforts, experts say, have failed to address the educational issues that may be placing foster children at greater risk of repeating grades or dropping out of school.

The largest national study on foster children’s school performance--headed by Mr. Gershenson in 1977 when he was chief of the evaluation branch of the federal Administration for Children, Youth, and Families--found that such youngsters were “significantly less likely” than their classmates to be at the proper grade level for their age.

The study, sponsored by the a.c.y.f. and Westat Inc., compiled data on 367,207 children in foster care and compared them with census data on children nationwide.

From ages 6 to 17, on average, 26 percent of the foster children were at least one year below grade level, compared with 17 percent nationwide. By the time they reached 17, 47 percent of the foster children were at least a year behind, compared with 19 percent nationally.

A four-year study of 585 children in five western states served by the Casey Family Program, a privately endowed social-services agency that places children in long-term foster homes, yielded similar results.

The study, launched in 1984 and headed by David Fanshel, a professor in Columbia University’s school of social work, showed that about a third of the children entered the agency system below grade level, and the same proportion were behind when they exited foster care.

A more recent, as-yet-unpublished study, conducted by Westat in the 1988-89 school year, explored the educational status of 275 maltreated or neglected children in Baltimore who had been placed with relatives.

The study’s researchers, Richard J. Sawyer and Howard Dubowitz, found that large percentages were receiving special or remedial education, and that a third of the elementary-school students and two-thirds of the high-school students had repeated at least one grade.

Significant numbers also scored below city averages on standardized tests and were rated by teachers as below average in problem-solving abilities and listening comprehension.

In Ms. Festinger’s study, the young adults who had grown up in foster care were less apt to have finished high school or college than their contemporaries--even four or five years after leaving foster care--and more than 60 percent said they were not well prepared to pursue further training or schooling.

“As a nation, we cannot afford to write off this group of vulnerable young people, who we will look to staff our businesses and run our factories in the future,” the Children’s Defense Fund argued in 1989 Congressional testimony urging better monitoring of foster children’s schooling.

Despite the large numbers of foster children experiencing educational difficulties, the more recent Westat study found that sizable percentages were functioning well in several areas, and it suggested that some modes of teaching held particular promise for such youngsters.

‘Ridiculous to the Sublime’

Such approaches included direct instruction; multi-sensory, hands-on teaching methods; techniques that teach children how to use cognitive skills to process new material; study-skills training; cooperative learning; and peer tutoring.

Mr. Fanshel of Columbia University also cited reports by Israeli psychologists of success meeting the educational needs of “socially deprived children” using pedagogies that view academic problems in “the larger emotional context of the children.”

“In the U.S.,” he said, “we seem to be floundering more about how to get a handle on the learning needs of children subject to emotional deprivation.”

But Mr. Fanshel and others agree that the educational system must first become more cognizant of those needs.

“For a child to succeed in school, it can’t just be the responsibility of the foster parent,” said Henry L. Gunn 3rd, director of the Prince George’s County (Md.) Department of Social Services. “It’s going to take some special attention on the school site itself.”

Schools’ responses to foster children now vary widely.

“You get everything from the ridiculous to the sublime--it depends on the leadership of the school,” said Philip P. Bowser, a Roseburg, Ore., school psychologist who has been a foster parent.

“Some schools are real active in meeting with foster parents,” he observed, while others “prefer not to deal with [someone who isn’t] the biological parent.”

And for foster children living in institutions, including group homes, added Mary Lee Allen, director of the child-welfare and mental-health division of the Children’s Defense Fund, “it may be easy for local school officials to write them off as group-home kids.”

Partly because they move so frequently, observed Frank Farrow, director of children’s-services policy at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, “most schools do not deal well with kids who are in foster care.”

“Very few places really flag these as special-needs kids in the context of the educational program,” he said.

Move ‘Faster Than Files’

Richard Clarke, a guidance consultant with the Mount Diablo, Calif., school district, pointed out that the simple process of school enrollment can be “a horrendous problem” for foster children. (See related story, this page.)

“We are finding that records are lost over the course of many foster moves from district to district and county to county,” he noted.

Mr. Clarke is coordinator of the district’s Foster Youth Services program, a state-funded program that provides school-based tutoring and counseling for foster children in four California districts. (See Education Week, June 5, 1991.)

“When students get moved, it seldom has anything to do with school schedules,” said Tom Blanks, a Foster Youth Services teacher who said he spends about a third of his time tracking down and “finessing” records.

“A student often moves faster than his files can catch up with him,’' he added.

Beyond the enrollment hurdles foster children face, experts say, the continuity of learning suffers.

“What hurts the most academically is that sometimes you never get two lessons out of the same book [or] one style of instruction or system of books,” Mr. Bowser said. “So you wind up repeating things you already heard or miss things.”

Children in the foster system also demand a level of attention schools may be unprepared to provide.

“All my kids are needy,” said Karen Strathaus, a special-education teacher at the Rio Vista Elementary School in Contra Costa County, Calif.

But because of the extreme instability of their family lives, she noted, “in almost every case, foster kids need twice the attention and twice the concern.”

“Almost every one of them cries out for help,” she added.

Unheeded, such cries may make foster youths more susceptible to substance abuse or teenage pregnancy, studies suggest.

As they enter their teens, identity issues common to all adolescents--and pivotal to their self-esteem--are “compounded” by family separations and new adult relationships foster-care children must negotiate, a 1987 c.d.f. report on preventing teen pregnancy among foster-care children noted.

No ‘Reeboks and Jeans’

While schools should recognize foster-children’s vulnerabilities, experts note, they also point out that the wrong kind of attention can create a stigma.

Ramona L. Foley, director of foster care for the South Carolina Department of Social Services, recalled, for example, how one school used a public-address announcement to direct all children who rode a special van to a local foster-care group home to report to the front office.

In an example cited by Gordon Evans, information director for the National Foster Parent Association in Houston, schools gave foster children receiving federally subsidized meals lunch tickets that were a different color from other students’.

Such experts also point out that having to fill in forms or answer questions about why their names differ from their parents’ can also be intimidating to foster children.

Financial constraints, they add, can also set foster children apart.

For example, not being able to afford clothes “in tune with today’s styles,” Mr. Evans said, “just adds fuel to the fire.”

But at an average monthly reimbursement rate of $292 per 9-year-old child, he noted, foster parents “can’t dress them in Reeboks and jeans.”

“One of the saddest things I’ve seen,” Ms. Foley said, was an incident in which foster children were left behind from a school field trip because “they didn’t have the $10 or $15" required to attend.

In addition to the inadvertent labeling, educators’ attitudes may also give rise to subtle biases, some suggest.

Eileen Mayers Pasztor, director of family foster care for the Child Welfare League of America, noted that children traumatized by family problems, living with strangers, and missing loved ones may “act out” their emotions, resulting in behaviors teachers may see as “bad or uncooperative.”

Knowing a child’s background may also color teachers’ expectations.

“The reality is that teachers expect foster-care kids to be trouble,” Mr. Evans maintained.

Others point out that it may be difficult for the most attentive schools to determine how best to serve a child outside the traditional special-education system.

Robert Ayasse, a social worker with the Foster Youth Services program in Contra Costa County, noted, for example, that some children who display behavior problems tied to neglect or abuse are not severely emotionally disturbed, but may need extra support or counseling.

In the school context, Mr. Ayasse said, “It’s hard to figure out the appropriate intervention.”

The balancing act for schools, Ms. Allen of the cdf said, is to ensure that foster children are integrated into the student body, but also have access to the services they need.

“The intent over a long period of time is to get schools to recognize that these kids have come out of a family crisis and may need some special support, without singling them out,” Mr. Gunn, the Prince George’s County social-services director, agreed.

Schools: ‘Eyes and Ears’

Noting that child abuse and neglect are often precursors to foster placement, experts say one way schools can help stem the need for placement is to help identify potential victims and direct their families to needed services.

“Teachers can be our eyes and ears that there’s an emerging problem long before we have serious abuse,” said Janet Levy, director of the Joining Forces project of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The project, sponsored in conjunction with the American Public Welfare Association, promotes collaboration between schools and social agencies.

But Ms. Pasztor of the Child Welfare League pointed out that, while ''teachers often are the first ones to spot signs of abuse and neglect,” they may not be well trained in how to recognize or report it.

And because existing laws require teachers to report abuse or neglect to a child-welfare system with whom the teacher may have no further contact, Mr. Evans said, sometimes they “never know whether anything was done or not.”

“The suspicion in many cases is that it is not,” he added. “If that happens once or twice, you lose your vigor about reporting.”

The education and child-welfare systems must also work out ways “to protect legitimate concerns around confidentiality,” Ms. Levy said, so that “school personnel can be an ongoing part of helping a family in trouble.”

“In a reoriented system,” she explained, “the teacher could say, ‘We’ve got a family under stress, and we need to get in there right now’ and help.”

Case-by-Case Approach

How well foster youths’ educational needs are met also depends on the quality of the foster-care agency, how large caseloads are, how well trained foster parents are, and how effectively they work with schools, Mr. Gershenson of the Center for the Study of Social Policy noted.

Advocates of the “family preservation” approach--in which caseworkers provide intensive short-term, home-based services to families at risk of having a child placed in foster care--say workers in those programs are better equipped to intervene in children’s schooling than traditional social workers.

They also say such programs are designed to address a wide range of family circumstances that could affect a child’s school performance.

In a demonstration program to prevent unnecessary placements in Prince George’s County, for example, the goal is for caseworkers’ plans to reflect a “holistic perspective of what caused the family to break down and what it would take to fix it,” Mr. Gunn said.

“If we find problems in school, that would become part of it,” he added.

In the Homebuilders program, based in Tacoma, Wash., “some schools invite us into the classroom to serve as a consultant to the teacher,” noted David Haapala, executive director of the Behavioral Sciences Institute and a co-founder of the 17-year-old Homebuilders.

But the program--which serves about 800 Washington children and families a year and has been a model for family-preservation efforts nationwide--does not promote any particular educational intervention, and interaction with schools is “on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Haapala acknowledged.

Peter W. Forsyth, vice president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and director of its program for children, which supports a number of family-preservation efforts, also conceded that schools are not a major target of such efforts.

But, he argued, instead of having caseworkers approach schools, such programs should help train parents or foster parents to be more effective advocates.

“Our goal is to empower or teach families how to help themselves with some of these issues,” he said. “If you send a good educational advocate to get a kid back in school, what the mother learns is that next time she has to find somebody to do it for her.”

Some states promoting reforms in their child-welfare systems are attempting to involve the education sector in planning in an effort to design approaches that address a wide range of children’s needs.

In Maryland, for example, the education department is involved in state-level activities, and planning bodies set up in each jurisdiction to design an interagency service-delivery system include schools.

Collaboration forged by regional multi-agency governing entities set up under North Dakota’s “Families First” child-welfare-reform program has also led to several initiatives in which the schools are involved in efforts to identify and provide early-intervention services to high-risk children and families to preclude the need for foster placement.

‘Very Little Crossover’

Child-welfare experts and educators say a fundamental reason foster children’s educational needs have been overlooked is that their systems traditionally have run on two separate tracks.

“Basically, the problem has been that there is very little crossover in terms of ongoing linkages between education and the child-welfare system,” said Ms. Foley of South Carolina, where a task force steering child-welfare reform has proposed some steps to sensitize schools to foster children’s special needs.

“Part of the problem is the issue of who ultimately has the responsibility to make certain decisions for this particular population,” Ms. Allen of the c.d.f. said.

That question raises a “range of issues,” she said, including: “Is a case manager versed enough in education to know what to do if a parent mentions problems in school? Or do we identify an educational ombudsman who can provide expertise to staff or parents?”

The shortage of school psychologists and social workers, experts add, heightens the need for social-service agencies to link up with schools and school counselors.

Besides assigning a “watchdog” to track foster children’s concerns in school, child-welfare workers must “link up with school social workers to take a special look” at foster children, said Isadora Hare, staff director of the National Association of Social Work’s commission on education.

In the Mount Diablo, Calif., school district’s Foster Youth Services program, for example, Mr. Ayasse, a social-casework specialist with the Contra Costa County Department of Social Services, is employed half time by the school system.

Besides making it possible to offer school-based tutoring and counseling to foster children, the alliance has helped “expedite the sharing of information going in both directions” and educate workers in both agencies about the educational needs of children in foster care, said Mr. Clarke, the district’s f.y.s. coordinator.

The Hennepin County (Minn.) Community Services Department, meanwhile, is also trying to work out an arrangement for an in-school day treatment program that would been funded jointly with the schools, noted Michael Weber, director of the department.

Guidance from social workers, therapists, school psychologists, family doctors, and speech clinicians, all of whom “see the child in isolation,” can be conflicting and confusing, added Mr. Bowser, the Roseburg, Ore., school psychologist and former foster parent.

“It is pretty much up to foster parents to sift through all that,” he said.

‘Good Strokes’

Ms. Pasztor of the Child Welfare League said such problems highlight the need for “more of a partnership between teachers and foster parents,” as well as between schools and social-service agencies. The league, she noted, has produced a video highlighting how foster parents and teachers can work together.

Mr. Evans of the National Foster Parent Association recommends that no child be admitted to school from a foster family until a confer4ence is held with foster parents.

Experts cite several ways that the child-welfare system and schools can help attend to foster children’s educational needs.

Besides urging improvements in the school record-keeping process, Mr. Clarke cited a need to develop reliable funding sources at the state and federal levels for programs that offer remedial help for younger foster children and “adaptive skills” for young adults.

One such option, he suggested, would be to expand the categories of children eligible for Chapter 1 money set aside for neglected or delinquent children to include foster children when the law is reauthorized in 1993.

Ms. Festinger’s recommendations include ensuring that expectations about school are clearly communicated to children, foster parents, and group-home personnel; conducting academic assessments over time so students are not labeled on the basis of a single test; identifying potential problems early and making tutorial help quickly available; consulting with educational psychologists; and making sure standards for foster-care practice “address the educational development of children with more than a passing phrase.”

A report prepared by a South Carolina Department of Social Services task force studying foster-care reforms also advised such steps as providing information to teaching institutions “to acquaint them with the special needs and issues of children in out-of-home care,” and offering in-service training on the subject for teachers and guidance counselors.

Whatever form it takes, experts agree, schools can play a critical role in filling in the educational gaps in the child-welfare system.

“The system right now is so stressed that to just get a kid into a safe place is the right thing to do,” Mr. Clarke said. “To go on top of that and actually plan as a parent would for the child’s success in school--creating a positive attitude toward learning and giving them all the good strokes you give kids to keep them on the right track--social workers just don’t have the time to do that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 1991 edition of Education Week as Foster Youths Said To Get Little Help With Educational Deficits