In the past, the trauma of being placed in foster care was often intensified by placement in a new school. But in 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which required that a child who is placed in foster care (or in a new foster home) remain in the same school unless it is not in his or her best interest.
But as reported in The Imprint last week, implementation has been hampered by the lack of cooperation from schools. In response, Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced a bill to improve education stability for kids in foster care by enhancing collaboration between child welfare agencies and schools.
Fostering Connections made a big difference, at least in the District of Columbia where I worked as a social worker. The first thing we used to do when a child came into care was to register him or her at a new school near the foster home, which was usually in Maryland. With the implementation of Fostering Connections, we were suddenly making arrangements to have our clients transported to their current school in D.C.
This change in practice was positive for many foster children. My first client to benefit was attending a high-performing charter school in the city. Rather than putting her in the low-performing school in the neighborhood of the foster home, we were able to transport her to her school, which was a great source of stability and support for her.
However, in many cases, school stability conflicts with another value that is currently gaining great currency: that of “normalcy” for foster children. Following the lead of several states, Congress recently enacted a law last year that requires states to allow foster children to engage in “extracurricular, enrichment, cultural and social activities.”
But when young people have long commutes that require private transportation, it is often difficult or impossible for them to participate in activities and visit friends. In many urban areas, children removed from families in the inner city go to foster homes in the suburbs because there are not enough foster families in central cities.
Over half of D.C.’s foster kids live in Maryland. Many of these children are being transported to their original D.C. school or to a Maryland school that they attended when they lived in a previous foster home. This trip can be as much as 40 miles for children in foster homes in the outer suburbs. Private transportation providers generally use a van transporting several children to and from different homes and schools, so many young people spend more than an hour in the van as they wait for others to be picked up or dropped off.
Children using private transportation are often unable to participate in extracurricular activities because transportation services rarely do pickups after 5 pm and often require that children be picked up at the same time every day. It is also difficult for foster children to visit friends (a big target of the normalcy law) because of distance and lack of public transportation.
Not only are long rides to school bad for kids, but they are also extremely expensive. Unfortunately, there is no data publicly available about how much governments are spending for school transportation. I know it was a major expense for the two private agencies for which I worked.
I also wonder if the benefit is worth the cost. The private agency I worked for most recently was paying a driver to pick up one of my clients and bring him to school daily. But my client was refusing to go to school about twice a week and was failing all his classes. I’m not sure this was a sensible investment.
There is only one way to meet the twin goals of normalcy and school stability. Rather than drive children all over the metropolitan area to get them to their original schools, we need to keep them close to home. This means trying to recruit more foster homes located in central cities.
The District of Columbia has launched a new recruiting campaign to do just that. But it is hard to believe this effort will succeed in the District and other cities where rapidly rising housing prices are driving away the people who are most likely to be foster parents. We may have to look at paying foster parents a salary or even providing them with housing in order to be able to keep our children where they belong: near their homes and schools.
Marie K. Cohen is a former child welfare caseworker for Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Welfare Information Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy.