Skadden Winner Will Focus on Foster Children's Education Issues

December 11, 2003

Law School alum Janet Stocco '03 found her future calling while teaching in a Houston inner-city school under Teach for America, a program that places outstanding college graduates in low-income rural and urban communities. Leaving her doctoral work in genetics at Harvard behind for two years, she discovered she loved teaching, but found to her dismay that teachers are given little respect outside and sometimes even inside the classroom. More importantly, teachers can't make substantive policy-based decisions that affect a broad swath of students. But "people pay attention when you have 'J.D.' after your name," she said, and she wanted people to pay attention to what she had to say.

Janet Stocco, originally from Maine, is now working as a law clerk in Houston, where she lives with her husband.

A few years and an M.A. and J.D. later, policymakers' ears better perk up. Stocco was recently awarded the Skadden Fellowship, one of just 25 given each year by law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to graduating law students and outgoing law clerks, which she will use to work for the Education Law Center in Philadelphia on issues affecting Pennsylvania's foster children. The Fellowship was established to honor public service work and offers fellows $37,500 plus benefits for one year, with the expectation that it will be renewed for a second year. Past fellows have provided legal services to the poor, elderly, homeless, and disabled; fought for human rights and civil rights; and worked on economic development and community renewal, according to the firm.

Stocco, currently a law clerk for the Hon. Carolyn Dineen King, Chief Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, said she was amazed she received the award, and excited to begin her work at the Center in the fall.

"I'm going to continue working on education issues, but from a lawyer's perspective," she said.

The Education Law Center works to promote children's access to education rights, protect rights to special education, and find solutions to education issues affecting low-income students. As a law student Stocco researched for the Center on a pro bono basis, but as a Skadden Fellow she will directly advocate for clients, something the policy think tank doesn't usually have the staff for. "This does require one person at a time to help each kid out," she said. Her advocacy experience will likely inform the Center's policy work as well. "They'll have information on where the kinks in the system are that need to be worked out," she said.

Foster children have unique education needs in part because the rights of their biological parents haven't been terminated, which can make school enrollment difficult when they live in a different city or county, Stocco said, and foster parents do not have the same legal rights as an advocate for the children. Furthermore, research indicates that 75 percent of foster children perform below grade level, over 35 percent are in special education (compared to 10 percent of the general population), and nearly half have been retained at least one grade level, according to Stocco. In the 1980s the Center filed a class-action suit to force schools to enroll foster children more quickly, but research just two years ago indicated there still can be delays of over a week, or sometimes up to 100 days. The lawsuit helped spur the Pennsylvania Department of Education's proposed five-day window, requiring schools to enroll a student within five days of learning of the child.

"It would be my job to make sure all the districts comply," she said. "Access is always the initial step with keeping kids in school."

Stocco will also work with foster children in special education. Their Individual Education Plans, which detail the services a student receives, may mandate five hours a week of speech therapy, for example, but if kids switch schools because they are placed in foster care in a new area, the same services may not be available. Alternately, a student could have been misdiagnosed as disabled or the school may have overlooked the fact that the student has a learning learning disability that needs to be addressed. Normally, the biological parent would sign on to a new educational plan or program, but with foster children, it's unclear who has legal authority to do so, and schools often end up bypassing federal laws requiring that a "surrogate parent" be appointed because of the small pool of surrogates in the state. Foster parents who are appointed surrogates may not have the training to adequately advocate for a special-needs child, either. "People aren't getting appointed," she said. "My job would be to make sure these kids aren't overlooked, that surrogates are appointed, and then to help them advocate for the foster children.'

"There are a lot of procedural protections put in [by the courts] for biological parents," so parents who want to regain custody don't lose their rights. If a biological parent remains engaged, a surrogate is not appointed, and parents' physical separation from foster children may hurt their ability to advocate for the student's best interests. "Each kid is in such a uniquely different situation," she said, which underlines the need for direct legal representation.

Stocco once considered specializing in patent law because of her background in genetics, but "I had a strong desire to become a child advocate before coming to law school … [and] working in the Child Advocacy Clinic really cemented my goals." She recalled one heart-rending case close to graduation that weighed on her decision to pursue a public service career" one of her clients was put into foster case, and there was a dispute over her special-education needs, but the mother had moved away and couldn't advocate for her child. After taking the clinic, "thinking of doing anything else was just depressing."

Stocco, a former Virginia Law Review Executive Editor, credits Public Service Center Director Kimberly Emery for supporting her goals and telling her about the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Plan, which pays off loans for those working in public service. "You can actually be a child advocate and not go bankrupt," she said.

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