Conference Aims at Keeping Foster Children in School

October 19, 2004
Children's panel
From left, Gail Chang Bohr, Bridget Kennedy Brewster, Virginia Wise, and Frank Cervone.

Children in foster care or in the juvenile justice system urgently need to stay in school and should be encouraged to have the same educational goals as other children, according to a panel of speakers at a National Children's Law Network conference sponsored by the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center and the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center at the Law School Oct. 15. Four panelists presented a program titled "In School, the Right School, Finish School" to an audience of school officials, social workers, probation officers, and law students. Schools offer children in state custody the clearest way out of their predicament, but the likelihood of success depends on the quality and stability of the relationships they form there, panelists agreed.

Children's panel
Andy Block, Director of the JustChildren program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, introduces the talk as Frank Cervone, Executive Director for the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, looks on.

"These are children, who because of situations of abuse or neglect, are in the custody of the state, not their parents. We are the state. We represent these children in one way or another… It's our responsibility to see that these children succeed and we have not done a very good job," said Virginia Wise of the Children's Law Center of Massachusetts. "We want them to succeed just as if they were our own children.

"There is an obvious connection between school failure of children and our burgeoning prison population," said Wise. "Our failure to educate these children has long-term consequences for society. We haven't given them the tools they need. Instead of going to college they're going to prison."

Children of color are disproportionately represented in foster care and juvenile justice systems and they face additional barriers to attending school and finishing school because they are in the custody of the state, she said. Adults involved with these children should always keep in mind that "court-involved children have faced extraordinary trauma and loss… Besides learning the ABCs and getting ready for those tests they have to pass, they have to deal with life on the streets and getting shot at when their mother was out shooting up drugs, or stealing food so their baby sister could stay alive." Their personal histories are often so shattered that they are at a loss for how to respond when school assignments ask them to write about their families, she said.

She encouraged everyone involved with such a child to attend all court hearings regarding them. "The judge needs to hear from you at every hearing. Parties should present information on the educational standing of the child. Make sure you know who has educational decision-making authority for the child. Make sure a surrogate parent is appointed by the court." Bring educational and medical records to the hearings too, she advised, so that their absence does not cause other obstacles to staying in school.

Studies show that foster children can have developmental delays up to five times greater than other children and that children lose four to six months of academic progress with each move to a new school, Wise said. In California, children in foster care average nine different schools by age 18. Federal laws give foster children the right to stay in their school of origin, Wise said. The foster parents or the school are responsible for transportation. "They have a right to school stability and that's very important because we often find when we get to a court hearing three weeks after a child has been removed from the family-guess where the child is? She's at home with the foster mother and hasn't gone to school for three weeks. She should have just kept going to the school she was going to."

School secretaries should be aware of foster children's rights, she said, and be alert to when they may change foster homes. "Schools should be especially sympathetic to kids in state custody. They don't have parents speaking up for them…The more often they miss school, the more likely they are to end up in delinquency and then in our prison system."

Turning to delinquency issues, she faulted schools for expelling students even when the charges against them are dismissed. "School officials fear their influence on others," she acknowledged, but children not in school have higher arrest rates.

"We don't want them just warehoused in school," explained Bridget Brewster of the Children's Law Center. "We want them in the right program for their unique needs. We want to maximize their potential.

"What I worry about is that we are all in our silos" working on the problem in isolation from each other, she said. "If we don't work as a team, the children do start to fall through the cracks."

Ticking off statistics showing their substantial academic development delays-50 percent of children in state custody are held back to repeat grades-Brewster said, "Schools are the last place of resort for services to kids. I know schools feel like 'it all falls on us,' but, in fact, it does."

Schools offer delinquent children safety, attention to learning disorders, and a chance to develop good social behaviors, she said. "They find role models there that they haven't had before."

Schools should stress enhancing their relationships with delinquent students, she said. Teachers in the audience later commented that every student they teach is appealing to them for special personal attention and there simply isn't enough time or energy to meet all their demands.

Brewster said special education laws provide for high levels of service for students and "anyone in this room can refer a child for a special education assessment." Behavioral and emotional problems, not just academic ones, qualify students for special services. "Include [the student] in the dialogue," she said. "It doesn't really help for them to be in a program they really don't want to be in." The more invested they are in the plan, the more likely it is to succeed.

To reinforce the goal of high school graduation, they should be encouraged from an early age to describe their educational goals for themselves. When asked what their aspirations are, kids in the foster care system report the same ones as other kids-college and successful careers, said Gail Chang Bohr of the Children's Law Center of Minnesota. But, meanwhile, about 20,000 students "age out" of foster care every year nationwide. About half of those never get their diploma and half will end up with arrest records. "Something happened to these children that they became frustrated with school," she said.

The aim is to keep foster kids on grade level, panelists agreed, and pointed out the need for better preschool programs. A law student with experience teaching stressed that a child's own motivation to succeed in school is reinforced by having them describe their personal goals to supportive adults.

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