Education Instability a Symptom of Bigger Foster Care Problem

Of the myriad issues in child welfare, The Imprint has recently chosen to devote five articles to one issue: California’s failure to implement federal provisions regarding educational stability for foster youth.

Most recently, Publisher Daniel Heimpel reported that California fails to implement a federal education law, denying students in foster care their right to school transportation.

Heimpel is talking about California’s failure to meet a December 2016 deadline to explain how it will comply with a new provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act requiring them to transport foster children to their original schools whenever it is in their best interest.

As a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I acquired firsthand experience in the difficulties of imposing an educational stability mandate. During my tenure, the District dropped its policy of immediately re-enrolling foster children in the school closest to the foster home and began making efforts to keep them at their original schools.

For many children, this new policy was a much needed dose of stability at a time of traumatic disruption. The comfort of seeing familiar teachers and friends cannot be overstated. As a social worker, I was happy to know that the student’s teacher or social worker would keep a special eye out for them or let me know of any problems.

But the new policy had some consequences that were not as beneficial, especially for the half of D.C. foster kids living in Maryland foster homes. Young people spending over two hours a day in vans and unable to participate in sports or extracurriculars because they would miss their ride. Kids getting to school too early or hanging around school for an hour since the driver had to transport other children to other schools.  

Foster parents who never visited the child’s school because it is an hour away during rush hour or they “don’t drive in the city.” Foster youth unable to make friends in the neighborhood because they went to school in an entirely different jurisdiction.

Being able to participate in activities and see friends is part of another goal that has also been enshrined in federal education policy. It is called “normalcy,” and the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 requires that states develop standards to ensure that foster children have these opportunities. That same act mandated that child welfare agencies collaborate with education agencies to keep kids in their school of origin, the child welfare side of the mandate discussed in this article.

If normalcy conflicts with school stability in the District of  Columbia, how much more difficult must it be to reconcile these goals in a county as large as Los Angeles, with an area of 4,751 square miles, 81 school districts, a famous traffic problem and one in five foster youths placed outside the county, as the Chronicle reported in 2015? 

It’s not that I am opposed to requiring that foster children be enabled to stay in their school of origin if it is in their best interests. It’s just that when foster homes are not near that school, the question of what is in the child’s best interests is not often an easy one to answer.

Until the day that we can place every foster child in a home that is within a few miles of the birth family (and that might require building foster home communities in those areas, as I have written before), it will be difficult to ensure school stability for foster children without compromising other values such as normalcy.

It is much easier for Congress to impose an unfunded mandate than to address the roots of the educational stability problem: a lack of foster homes in or near the communities from which children are removed. And it’s easier for the media to expose a jurisdiction’s failure to implement a policy than to report on the complex reality that makes it so hard to implement.

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