Although the educational needs of children in foster care have generally not received the level of attention that many experts say they should, efforts to change that situation appear to be growing around the country.
One sign of progress has been the new attempt that education and social service officials in two of the nation’s urban school districts have been making to share data on such children, who often fall behind in school as they move from one home to another.
In New York City, the school district and the city’s child-welfare agency recently completed a database that will allow officials to closely monitor the school attendance and academic progress of the city’s more than 34,000 foster children.
And in Seattle, efforts are under way to design a similar database, which will be used to answer some of the most basic information about that district’s 2,000 foster children: how many are being held back a grade, how many passed the state achievement test, and how many times they have changed schools.
“We do not know, and most cities do not know, where our children are,” said Jap-Ji Kaur Keating, the director of the tutoring program for Treehouse, a nonprofit agency in Seattle that provides a variety of services for children who enter the foster-care system. “Across the United States, it is becoming increasingly clear that children who are in foster care have not gotten a fair shake.”
The creation of the New York City database is a breakthrough for agencies that, while they often work with the same children, have historically had trouble communicating with one another.
“They now have a way to find each other’s kids in each other’s systems,” said Chris Stone, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and development organization in New York that has been involved in creating the database.
Access to information on foster children—such as their grades, records of any suspensions, and placements in special education—will allow educators and caseworkers to get individual children the help they need more quickly, organizers of the database say.
In addition to using the data to flag problems, Mr. Stone said, the information can be used by family courts to honor and reward high-achieving students who often “have no one to show a good report card to.” What’s more, he said, it will give officials the ability to track trends over time and to learn whether their efforts to improve services for the city’s foster children are making a difference.
Some groups, however, are arguing that the agencies that are responsible for those children have not acted fast enough.
In July, Advocates for Children of New York, a nonprofit organization that works in behalf of children in the city, issued a report criticizing the New York City schools and the city’s child-welfare agency for not having the database ready earlier.
And the report goes well beyond questions of data sharing to argue that foster children are being left out of some of the very programs that they need the most. “Although these children are clearly entitled to educational services under the law, their educational needs have continued to go unmet,” the report says.
Just the Beginning
While breaking down the barriers that prevent agencies from sharing information is a significant step, experts say it’s really just the beginning. The child-welfare and education systems must then work together to help keep foster children plugged into school despite the trouble in their families.
“School can often be the most stable thing” in foster children’s lives, Mr. Stone observed. “Everybody is now agreeing that school has been left behind.”
In Seattle, Treehouse has been instrumental in bringing together leaders—including Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, Joe Bell, a regional administrator for the state’s children and family-services department, and Rudolph F. Crew, a former New York City schools chancellor who now works in Washington state—to focus on the needs of children in foster care.
“The issue has not reached full maturity in terms of it being part of the national education agenda,” said Mr. Crew, the director of the Institute for K- 12 Education at the University of Washington. During his tenure in New York, Mr. Crew was a leading player in forging an agreement with the city’s child- welfare agency to share data on foster children.
Still, Mr. Crew said, there are “enormous possibilities” for governments to provide programs, both during the school year and in the summer, to meet the needs of children in foster care.
Increasingly, such efforts are being made.
Two years ago, Treehouse tutors were stationed in five elementary schools. This fall, they will reach children in 13 schools, including three middle schools and one high school. (“One-on-One,” Sept. 9, 1998.)
In New York City, the Vera Institute of Justice is entering the second year of Safe and Smart, a program in which child-welfare caseworkers are assigned to five middle schools in the South Bronx to provide individual counseling to students, run voluntary group discussions for foster children, and work with teachers to address students’ academic weaknesses.
And in Los Angeles, projects that bring educators and caseworkers together are part of a broader effort in the county to help families in need become more self-sufficient, said Jacquelyn McCroskey, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California.
“The schools are very much a part of that whole activity,” she said.
One dilemma that school districts and child-welfare agencies often face is whether to create a new position—someone who can act as a liaison between both systems—or to focus on improving communication and cooperation between the existing parties: teachers, caseworkers, parents, and foster parents.
Whatever approach districts use, foster children need the different kinds of help, Mr. Stone said. Some just require help getting their homework done while others need more intensive tutoring or special education advocacy.
Foster children often also need someone to move their school records through the system more efficiently. The need for improvement in that area is one focus of the recent Advocates for Children report.
Despite regulations designed to get foster children in New York City enrolled as soon as possible, the report says, “our survey results indicate that foster children continue to be denied immediate school admission, and experience loss of valuable academic instruction when unable to furnish such records at the time of initial registration.”
On this point, Mr. Stone says, Advocates for Children makes a valid argument. “The [school] board does not have a consistent and easily understood way to transfer kids in the middle of the school year,” he said.
Beyond the issues of sharing data and transferring school records, the Advocates for Children report raises a number of issues about foster children in New York that apply to such children elsewhere.
Nationally, the population of children in foster care had grown to more than 560,000 by 1998, up from 340,000 in 1988, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Because they often come from homes where they have been abused or neglected, foster children are more likely than other children to have academic and behavioral trouble in school, studies have shown. They have higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness, and are more likely than other children to repeat a grade and to be in special education.
In the report, Advocates for Children says that, based on its survey, many younger children in foster care with developmental delays are not receiving the early- intervention services they need, and that not all 4-year-olds in foster care are enrolled in New York state’s voluntary prekindergarten program, even though those children are"seriously at risk of educational failure.”
The report offers a range of recommendations, such as providing educational enrichment and keeping children in the same school when they enter foster care or move to a different foster home.
Officials from both the school district and the Administration for Children’s Services, the city’s child-welfare agency, criticized the report. They said it was based on a sample that was not chosen at random and was too small, with only 281 biological and foster parents, caseworkers, lawyers, young people in foster care, and other service providers.
On the issue of the database, Jennifer Falk, a spokeswoman for the children’s services agency, acknowledged that technical problems needed to be overcome to make it operable. But she said the report ignores the progress that has been made.
Mr. Stone said that when the agency and the city schools signed a memorandum of understanding in 1997 to pursue joint goals, their first priority was to identify children who might be victims of abuse or neglect. The second objective was to give caseworkers access to children’s school records. It’s true, Mr. Stone said, that creating the comprehensive database that Advocates for Children was calling for took third place.
Even if the database is up and running, the job is not done, said Jill Chaifetz, the executive director of Advocates for Children, arguing that the system is not being used to its full potential.
“We need to be much further along than we are,” she said.