On January 27, 2017, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Philadelphia gathered attorneys, child welfare professionals, and volunteers at Berger & Montague P.C. for a talk about the educational challenges vulnerable children in foster care face—and why there is cause for hope.
CASA Philadelphia trains and supports community volunteers to become sworn officers of the court to advocate for the safety, stability, health, and well-being of abused and neglected children in the foster care system. School stability is one such right that may get lost in the shuffle of more pressing concerns. Children who are removed from a parent or moved around in the foster care system may be transferred from a familiar school to one in which they have no connection and where their needs fail to be met.
Educational inequality is an especially severe problem in Philadelphia, where 180,000 people (a third of whom are children) live on less than half the federal poverty level. Councilwoman Helen Gym, whose three children all attended Philadelphia public schools, cited recent school closures, the loss of experienced teachers, and school district income gaps as a few of the reasons why the education system is not working for every child. She said, “Kids [in Philadelphia] walk up to 1.5 miles to get to dysfunctional schools. They’ve seen years of disinvestment in their communities.”
Gym also noted that Philadelphia has over six thousand children in foster care, and Philadelphia’s rate of removal (the frequency of cases where children are taken from their homes) is higher than that of any other large city in the country: a staggering 23.4 percent, compared to 7.7 percent for New York City.
The removal of children is frequently connected to neglect due to the challenges of poverty rather than parental abuse. Specifically, inadequate housing—a problem that overwhelmingly affects single women of color with children—is often the impetus for the involvement of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Gym suggested that eviction rates for these mothers are analogous to the incarceration epidemic among men of color. An eviction “disrupts a family’s ability to stay intact,” she said. “And if you switch an address, you switch schools.”
According to researchers, every school move results in an average loss of four to six months of educational progress. And ninth graders with DHS involvement miss an average of two more weeks of school than their peers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, children in the foster care system are up to four times more likely to repeat a grade and are twice as likely to drop out of school altogether.
Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, named school as one of the most important constants in the life of a child whose world has been turned upside down by a removal. “The school where [children] have connections, feel comfortable, and have friends should remain the same,” she said. “If you’re doing well in school, you’re more likely to attain permanency.”
Sadly, children in foster care may find themselves placed in new schools that do not adequately address their learning differences and difficult histories. McInerney described a young client who was segregated from peers at her new school because she was taking medication for HIV. And children involved with DHS are far more likely to have special needs, making school stability critical to their educational attainment.
In some cases, the assistance provided by court appointed special advocates—many of whom serve as “educational decision makers” appointed by the court pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Court Rules—may be all that prevents these kids from falling through the cracks of overtaxed legal and social service systems. But although the picture looks bleak, there is actually a lot that can be done to foster school stability, according to Jennifer Pokempner, child welfare policy director of the Juvenile Law Center. “We have a lot of good laws,” she said. “We’re failing in using these laws to the fullest extent.”
For instance, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires state education agencies to ensure school stability for children in foster care, including providing transportation to the child’s original school. The act also removes hurdles to immediate enrollment in a new school so children cannot be turned away because of missing personal records or past disciplinary problems. Schools, however, do not always abide by ESSA. Maura McInerney recalled taking an elementary school to court for refusing to admit a child who did not have the required records: “There she was, legs dangling, in her little backpack, saying ‘Your Honor, I just want to go to school!’”
Another significant support for children in foster care is the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students who qualify for special education services under IDEA are legally entitled to a “free, appropriate public education,” including specially designed instruction to meet their educational needs. The protections of IDEA extend up to the age of 21.
At age 14, youths with individualized education programs (IEPs) must receive transition services to prepare them for the adult world. Such services, available until age 21, help students maximize their time in school so they are truly ready for the world of work and postsecondary education and training.
The services can include nontraditional programming like life skills training. The extra programming may be a boon to young people who are receiving special education services and have not been able to graduate on time owing to family instability and other obstacles. When students exit the education system at 18, they miss out on vocational and life skills preparation that could help them land on their feet.
Court appointed special advocates, child welfare professionals, and others who work with children and youths in foster care are challenged to ensure that the opportunities and supports under these and other laws are afforded to these young people to smooth the road for those who are already experiencing traumatic life changes.
In addition, caseworkers and others must assist youths in foster care to engage in robust and detailed planning for the future. This includes helping them identify their goals, learn how to finance higher education, learn how to complete a FAFSA, etc. Currently only 3 percent of kids in the foster care system end up earning a bachelor’s degree.
Maura McInerney recalled a client who said he wanted to be a marine biologist. Though adults in the room nodded and smiled, McInerney noted that he had failed biology, and no one engaged him to explore what it was about “marine biology” that appealed to him. For example, was he interested in working with animals or was the attraction being on the water?
It’s up to the adults working with these youths to help them develop goals that appeal to them and describe the short- and long-term practical steps they can take to achieve their goals. If marine biology was indeed the dream, the IEP team needed to develop concrete goals and services to achieve that dream. If this was not truly the youth’s goal, the team needed to work with him to figure out what was and then develop a plan to achieve it.
A timely conversation about the future between a child and an adult who has been a stable presence in the child’s world can empower the child to take the reins of a life that has been largely out of his or her control. It is the role of adults to act as advocates and make certain that these conversations happen, that effective and concrete plans are developed, and that there is accountability to ensure that the plans are carried out.
For more information about CASA of Philadelphia, its Education Decision-Maker program, and its Speakers Series, visit www.casaphiladelphia.org.