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Lawyers can help ensure homeless and foster care children succeed in education, panelists say

Lawyers can help ensure homeless and foster care children succeed in education, panelists say

By John Glynn

Antoinette Jones was 2 years old when she was taken from her parents and placed in foster care. As a ward of the state, she was separated from her siblings, lived with strangers, held few possessions and faced many obstacles, including access to education and a stable educational development.

Despite state and federal efforts to provide welfare children with improved access to public school, Jones encountered many challenges on her educational path as a child and as a teenager. She experienced school enrollment instability, sometimes attending multiple schools within a single year, and she was enrolled in schools far from her foster home, enduring long commutes to school and problems with transportation to and from school.

Jones, now emancipated and enrolled at Richard J. Daley College, shared her story at the American Bar Association’s panel “Meeting the Educational Needs of Highly Mobile Students: The Education Rights of Homeless Children and Youth and Those in the Child Welfare System” during the ABA Midyear Meeting on Feb. 7 in Chicago.

“Sometime you feel like, just because you are a ward of the state, you didn’t get the certain care or attention that other students got,” Jones said. “I know a couple of people I used to live with at the SOS village would go to school having so much on their shoulders, [issues] that they dealt with at home, and they were letting her teachers know, and it didn’t mean anything [to the teachers].”

Panelists at the program, sponsored by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, discussed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act and other child welfare laws that support school continuity and stability for children. They also provided advice for legal advocates, educators and policymakers for using these important laws to benefit highly mobile youth.

Jones found that instability with housing was one of the major barriers to meeting her educational needs. “Having to meet new people, having to deal with news teachers — you get attached to certain teachers and then you have to move and get used to new teachers and get attached to them,” Jones said.

“I was happy to find a school that was taking me in, helping me with my situation, but it was getting attached to new teachers, advisers, college counselors that was the hardest part [for me],” she added.   

Jones’ story resembles those of other children and youth experiencing homelessness and in foster care. According to statistics from The National Center on Family Homelessness, 40 percent of homeless children attend two schools per school year and 28 percent of homeless children attend three or more schools.

Ashley Fretthold, staff attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago, said high mobility resulting in lack of school stability and educational continuity as well as challenges in securing enrollment requirements — school records, immunizations, proof of residence and guardianship, transcripts — can be the principal obstacles to education for foster youth.

“Antoinette is a remarkable example because she has managed to break these barriers; sadly, she is the exception,” Fretthold said. “We hope that in the course of having these conversations, hopefully, in advocating for these needs, some of these barriers can be changed.”

Laurene M. Heybach, director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homelessness, addressed the federal educational mandates related to homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Act.

“Something great happened in 1987, which is, as part of the United States’ general response to the growing problem of homelessness, [Congress] passed the McKinney-Vento Act, and a portion of that act addressed the educational needs of homeless students,” Heybach said. “That is the law that has governed so much of what we do nationally on behalf of homeless kids.”

Panelists said strong advocacy is needed to ensure highly mobile children are able to access and succeed in education. They encouraged lawyers to play a role in ensuring the educational rights of children and youth experiencing homelessness and directed them to make use of the legal resources available.

Each audience member received a free ABA book titled “Educating Children Without Housing: A Primer on Legal Requirements and Implementation Strategies for Educators, Advocates and Policymakers,” which provides innovative strategies to assist communities in moving toward a greater commitment to embody not only the letter but also the spirit of the law.

“I especially like working with attorneys because I think you have some of the best opportunities to advocate and make real change, both at the system level and also at the direct case level,” said Kristin Kelly, staff attorney with the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

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