Hearings: A Delay on Education Plans Stalls Hopes for Permanency

The Lincoln Hall of Juvenile Justice in Detroit, Michigan.

It did not take long for the March 14 docket in Judge Tracy Green’s small third floor Detroit courtroom to go sideways.

In the first case of the morning, Judge Green checks on the case of a 10-year-old child named Ricky* living with a foster parent, Rashida Witt, who is moving toward adopting him.

But this routine progress review in the case was drawn out over a critical piece of the permanency plan that remained incomplete: the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), an  agreement that can be the key to ensuring the right academic setting and supports for youth traumatized by maltreatment and separation from family.

Witt is well known to the system here. She’s worked with families in the Detroit area for more than 25 years and has adopted several older children out of foster care. That alone makes her a prized member of the child welfare community – research has routinely found that young children have a higher probability of being adopted than older youth in foster care, even though the median age of youths awaiting adoption is about 8.

Ricky, who is repeating the fourth grade, is not in court today. Instead, he’s in school, but Witt tells Judge Green that his present academic path is little more than an adventure in babysitting. He regularly bounces from the fourth-grade classroom to the fifth grade, Witt said, depending on “whoever can tolerate his behavior that day.”

Most of what’s left on Ricky’s path to permanency is paperwork – some on the part of Witt, who still owes copies of bills and other documents to the state’s adoption specialist’s office to verify her income and residential stability. But the big obstacle in the way of finalization is an IEP, which for Ricky will likely require a school that is equipped to handle his behavioral needs.

Since 1975, federal law has required that schools evaluate any child with a disability and develop an IEP with the assistance of his or her parents. These plans apply frequently in the case of foster youths – recent research shows they are three times as likely as their peers to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and twice as likely to have learning disabilities and developmental delays.

There is no mention whatsoever of Ricky’s birth parents at this hearing. Adoption is the option, and while it is not brought up specifically, it seems as though Ricky’s parents’ rights have been terminated. But Witt, who has been around this block before, wants to make sure the schools and the system have agreed on some education guarantees before she takes permanent custody of Ricky.

“I have concerns that he should be in an E.I. [emotionally impaired] setting,” Witt told the court. But “the school he’s at says there’s no money for a licensed psychologist.”

Here is what the Michigan Alliance for Families says about what an IEP can ensure for a youth struggling with the effects of trauma:

A child with an emotional impairment will most likely be helped by positive behavioral  support, emotional support, and help with developing social skills, improving self-control and esteem. This means parents and educators work together to make an educational plan that provides supports, services, accommodations and modifications that fit the individual student with an emotional impairment. These supports and services are designed to help the student learn within the general educational curriculum along with other students.

Witt said the initial request for Ricky’s IEP was made in August.Michigan law requires that once that request is made, the school has 10 days to obtain any necessary permission and initiate the process.

The IEP wasn’t conducted until January, at which time the school promised to have it completed within 30 days, as state law requires. By mid-March, the IEP was not available in court on this day for Judge Green to review. Witt was clear that she did not want to take the final steps toward adoption without having an IEP in place.

Green, visibly frustrated, lamented the regular “inertia” around education plans in cases that came before her. For Ricky, she said, “this school year is a wash, and that’s an outrage.”

Green then issued a subpoena for the school’s social worker to appear at the next court date in June. “If the IEP shows up before that, they can consider that rescinded,” she said.

*The name of the foster youth and foster parent have been changed to protect their identities.

This story is a part of a new Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.

In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.

If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.

Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.

To contribute to “Hearings,” complete this form (or e-mail info@chronicleofsocialchange.org). Please be sure to include your name, location and role in a child welfare case.

A recent federal rule change could mean hundreds of millions of new funds for top-flight legal advocacy, and portends a new era of family justice in child welfare. Intense media coverage of this issue will drive increased funding for quality legal representation at the county, state and federal level.

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