Danielle DeMaison woke before sunrise one foggy morning last April and loaded her two daughters into her 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe.
Even though the cornstalk-lined roads around her little hamlet of Sanborn on the western edge of New York state were mostly empty, it took DeMaison four hours to get her biological and foster daughters to their separate schools. The seven-time foster mother made the same four-hour, round-trip drive to pick up the girls in the afternoon.
DeMaison enjoyed the car time with her daughters, she says, but it forced her to put off countless other chores, including a months-delayed visit to her dentist to get some achy, broken teeth removed. She didn’t have a choice.
Out of the recognition that educational stability is critically important in the often tumultuous lives of foster youth, federal law mandates that school systems ensure students like DeMaison’s foster daughter are afforded transportation to school.
In particular, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which overhauled federal education policy, and was signed into law in 2015, included a set of mandates designed to improve educational outcomes for foster youth.
In addition to ordering school systems to immediately enroll foster students when they change schools and quickly transfer their records, the law compelled school districts to come up with and implement plans – involving their counterparts in child welfare – to pay for getting foster youth to their so-called “school of origin” as they bounce from one living situation to the next. The deadline to do so was a year ago: December 10, 2016.
But in rural Niagara County, it was DeMaison, not a school bus driver, who did all the driving. Repeated calls to both the school district she lived in, and the adjacent one where her foster daughter attended school, failed to yield transportation help.
“I even had to fight them to reimburse me for the gas and mileage. I said, ‘This isn’t my job, this is your job,’” DeMaison said. After months of calls she finally was reimbursed a little more than $1,000 for all the driving, at the state’s $0.53 per-mile reimbursement rate. (Calls and emails to her home school district, Niagara-Wheatfield, were not returned.)
DeMaison, who finally convinced the school district to bus her foster daughter to the school in the neighboring district in September, isn’t alone in her experience. Foster parents, advocates and service providers say that in the rural western and northern parts of New York state, education agencies have been slow to commit to plans and to pick up the tab for getting children placed in foster care to the right school; and that some child welfare agencies haven’t chipped in more funding or followed up to ensure transportation plans proceed smoothly.
Without concrete mandates from the state, the respective agencies haggle over sometimes onerous costs. According to Peter Mannella, head of the New York Association of Pupil Transportation, a trade group representing transportation superintendents for New York school districts, the cost of transporting a youth placed in foster care back to their original district can be more than $100,000 for the year.
The breach suggests that New York state is out of compliance with ESSA, exposing it to the loss of over $1 billion in federal funds.
Title I, the largest grant program within the federal Department of Education (ED), is reserved for helping low-income students, and poured more than $1 billion into school districts across the Empire State in the 2016 fiscal year, according to a June report by the Congressional Research Service. While unlikely, ED could withhold some of that funding to districts like DeMaison’s that failed to comply.
A communications official with ED sent The Imprint a lengthy statement describing the agency’s efforts to ensure compliance with ESSA’s foster care mandates since the December 2016 implementation deadline.
“At this time, the Department has no knowledge of any state agencies that are out of compliance with the educational stability provisions,” the statement reads. “Moving forward the Department is committed to continuing to support state and district implementation efforts, and the Department is committed to ensuring the educational stability of foster youth.”
A forthcoming story in The Imprint will highlight more states that are still struggling to meet the mandates, a year after the deadline to do so.
For its part, the New York State Education Department said that, as of last week, 98 percent of its 1,004 local education agencies – 733 public school districts and 271 charter schools – had submitted required assurances that they would develop and implement consistent transportation plans. A department official said in an email that there was “widespread adherence” to those assurances, but conceded that the department has not kept track of the related transportation spending.
Calls from concerned foster parents across the state to the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY) suggest that while most of those 1,004 agencies may have submitted promises to improve collaboration and spending by the December 10 deadline, it is unlikely that they are closely adhering to the plans they promised to draw up, if they drew them up at all.
“In terms of the type of calls we get to our help line and the volume, this law doesn’t seem to have changed much,” said Richard Heyl de Ortiz, the director of AFFCNY, which provides information and advocacy for foster and adoptive families. “The takeaway we have is that foster families continue to struggle with school transportation.”
A spokesperson for the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which oversees foster care in the state, wrote in response to an emailed list of questions that the agency has “collaborated with stakeholders to develop additional ESSA guidance and we will soon offer local districts a tool kit and will hold regional training sessions.”
Elvira Northington, a longtime foster parent in Buffalo and president of the Western New York Foster and Adoptive Families Association, said that schools and county-run public child welfare agencies often decline to help foster parents with school transportation.
“You get a lot of pushback until you start pushing back … and really have to start insisting and getting other people involved. Then they get results,” Northington said, explaining what she’s experienced and heard from foster families across the Buffalo region. “It seems like in the beginning if [school officials] can just throw it off on somebody else then that’s what they do.”
Kathleen McNaught, who directs the American Bar Association’s Legal Center for Foster Care and Education within the Center on Children and the Law, and was a key player in ensuring the foster care mandates made it into ESSA, says that spotty compliance nationwide shouldn’t be surprising.
“The timelines to implement the foster care provisions in ESSA were short, and New York’s not alone in continuing efforts to ensure compliance statewide. We’re at a critical moment for them to implement this well in the coming months,” said McNaught, who has consulted with New York state officials on ESSA implementation. “It’s a relatively new law, with big bureaucracies having to work together to coordinate policies, involving purse strings on all sides. That brings a lot of complexities.”
While school districts and child welfare agencies contend with those complexities, some private New York foster care providers have taken it upon themselves to help foster parents arrange transportation.
“When the foster parents work and school districts can’t or won’t provide transportation support over vast distances, we’ve been creative with staffing, pulling our bootstraps collectively to maintain foster children in their home school districts,” said Victoria Peck the director of foster care for the Children’s Home of Jefferson County, which finds, trains and supports foster parents throughout upstate New York.
Ensuring that students in foster care, like DeMaison’s foster daughter, have transportation to their schools of origin is one of the law’s thorniest compliance issues. Unless the child welfare system determines that a new school is in the best interest of a neglected or abused child, the law says to keep that child in the school they were in whenever they had a change in their foster care placement – whether with a new family, in a group home or with kin.
“We’re taking a child from their foster residence to their school of origin on a 25-mile trip, for example, while most of the other kids in the district are doing 4 or 5 miles,” said Mannella of the New York Association of Pupil Transportation. “That means either sending an occupied bus and keeping everyone’s kids on it for an extra hour, or sending a small bus to just that kid.”
Our hearts go out to these kids, but let’s make it smart, make sure that we’re doing it the right way,” Mannella said.
The transportation requirements in ESSA did not envision an arrangement where school districts were burdened with the full cost of transportation, but Mannella says that’s what he sees happening.
“The [state ESSA plan] said schools now have to negotiate with social welfare agencies, but there’s no template for that in New York,” he said. “That child welfare agency and school district relationship, it’s not there. They’ve walked away from the kids.”