California advocates are hoping a new piece of legislation can prevent the educational disruption of children in foster care by opening up funding for children living with relatives in emergency placement situations.
Sponsored by Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva (D), Assembly Bill (AB) 337 would also compel the state to provide a written notice to caregivers about their eligibility for state money for travel reimbursements to a child’s school.
Current law in California allows foster children the right to remain in the school in which they were enrolled before experiencing a placement change, also known as their “school of origin.” But school changes for foster children in the state remain common.
A landmark 2014 study of educational outcomes for foster youth in California found that 17 percent of foster youth were enrolled in three or more schools during their first year in foster care. Frequent school changes are often associated with lower educational achievement for foster youth. According to one estimate, a foster child can lose four months of academic progress with every school change. Every time a foster youth has to switch schools alongside a placement change, their academic growth drops by 3.7 percentile points in reading, 3.0 points in writing, and 3.5 points in math, another recent study found.
Under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, the federal government specified that foster care payments should include the cost of “reasonable travel” required to maintain a youth in their school of origin and prevent unnecessary school changes. Caregivers in California can receive up to $443 in monthly support to transport a foster child to their school of origin, depending on how far they live from the school.
But California’s recent child welfare reforms have made the process of licensing caregivers for supports more difficult. The state has experienced months-long backlogs in the approval process for resource families, as foster parents and relative caregivers are now known in California. After many of these families experienced long waits to receive foster care payments while taking care of foster children placed on an emergency basis, the state passed a fix last year to start immediate funding for these caregivers during the resource family approval (RFA) process.
According to Angie Schwartz of the Alliance of Children’s Rights, a co-sponsor of the legislation, the financial strain of transportation costs can add up for relative caregivers, who frequently take in relative’s children without much advance preparation.
According to Schwartz, RFA approval timelines have dropped over the past year. But dealing with a huge gas bill can threaten the educational stability of foster youth, especially for many relative caregivers waiting for financial support from the state, she said.
“The approval timelines are down to about 140 days, but that’s the majority of a school year,” Schwartz said. “Chances are that if you are a relative caregiver that has limited means that you are not going to be able to provide that transportation on your own dime.”
Naomi Watson of the California Youth Connection said that frequent placement changes during her time in foster care meant she lost touch with the friends and community at her original school in Sacramento.
“I didn’t have the same connections with my classmates,” said Watson at a recent legislative hearing for AB 337. “That school was where I called home. It’s important to have somewhere you feel safe and someone that you feel that you connect to.”
The bill would also increase outreach to current foster care providers about travel reimbursement funding that could better support a foster youth to remain in their school of origin. Caregivers are are not always aware of available funding to cover the cost of transportation.
Advocates are hoping to clear $2.1 million in next year’s budget to cover the cost of the effort. The bulk of that would come from providing transportation stipends to about 2,000 caregivers during the time between when they took in a foster child and when they received RFA approval. The remaining cost would come from the state having to provide a notice of action about transportation support to all eligible caregivers for every foster child with a new placement or change of placement.