School Stability for Children in Foster Care: How Child Welfare and Agencies Can Work Together

Vol 30 No 8

Implementing the education provisions of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 requires that education and child welfare agencies collaborate.1  Even when education and child welfare agencies agree to work together, the process has only begun.

This article offers guidance, resources, and examples on beginning a collaboration, the form and structure of the collaboration and, most importantly, the goals and substantive content of the work.

Create a Common Knowledge Base

Each agency must understand its policies, practices, challenges, and goals.
Before child welfare and education agencies can work together, each agency must understand its practices, needs, and goals for education. Each agency should research the statutes, policies, protocols, and practices in place formally or informally for its system. 

Educators and child welfare staff must identify current challenges or barriers within their agencies that hinder their ability to improve educational success for children in care. Acknowledging and addressing these issues will set the stage for a positive collaboration.

Each agency should then identify its short or long-term goals (things the agency needs to focus on to advance the issue) as well as goals for collaborating. Finally, individuals within each agency must be identified to take the lead in the cross-agency collaboration.

Each agency must understand each other.

Child welfare and education agencies have different perspectives, structures, laws, policies, practices, and methods of operating. To collaborate as partners, each agency must better understand the role, practices, and laws governing the other agency. The more child welfare and education agencies learn about the other system, the better the opportunity for informed, productive, and ongoing
collaboration.

For many education agency professionals, the lives of children in foster care, and the challenges they face, are unfamiliar. Teachers and administrators often do not know how the child welfare system works—including what happens after legal custody transfers to a state or local child welfare agency, how juvenile courts and attorneys interact with children in care, the role of biological parents, foster families or residential facility staff, or the state or federal laws that govern the child welfare process. Educators often have little knowledge of the experiences children in care may have encountered or the emotional implications of those experiences on a child’s development and learning.

Child welfare professionals have similar knowledge gaps about the education system. Some may not know of common education barriers facing children in care. Child welfare workers and administrators need to understand, at a minimum, the state’s laws and policies regarding residency, enrollment, school discipline, and special education. They also need to learn how their state gives direction to local education agencies on key topics and laws. In addition, state and local child welfare agencies must understand the organizational structure and responsibilities of the local school districts and school boards.

Child welfare agencies need to know which school districts are in their county, whether different schools have different enrollment requirements, curricula or graduation requirements, and the transportation available in each district and to each school. Reviewing the Web site for the State Department of Education and then contacting an individual at that agency can be a useful starting point.

The duty to collaborate to ensure school stability and continuity under the Fostering Connections Act is a good incentive for state and local child welfare agencies to take the lead in helping to bridge the information gap between these agencies. This can serve as a starting point for building long-term partnerships and effective reforms.

Set a Process and Goals for the Collaboration

Effective collaborations are successful when staff and leaders in all agencies recognize the partnership will help them meet goals for their agencies, the children they serve, or the system as a whole.

Establish a process for collaboration.

Some things to address include:

  • Who else should be involved in the collaboration? For example, the juvenile court often has a role to play. Other agencies or
    community organizations may be important participants as well.
     
  • Is there an existing structure that can facilitate the collaboration (e.g., a workgroup, committee, or task force)?
    n Are there leaders (e.g., legislator or judge) who will champion the effort? 
  • Are there individuals needed for the effort to succeed (e.g., the agency director, school superintendent, or the director of special education)?
  • How will the collaboration be institutionalized and sustained (e.g., through a law or regulation, an interagency agreement or joint protocol, ongoing training, workgroups or committees)?
  • How will progress be measured, evaluated, and updated (e.g., data systems, updated protocols or policies)? 

Establish and prioritize goals for the collaboration.

Children in care face many educational challenges. As a result, there are many goals the agencies could prioritize. As a starting point, agencies can look to a framework established by the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education—and set forth in the Blueprint for Change: Educational Success for Children in Foster Care.2 This publication sets out eight goals that youth in care need to succeed in school:

GOAL 1 - Youth are entitled to remain in their same school when feasible 
GOAL 2 - Youth are guaranteed seamless transitions between schools and school districts when school moves occur;
GOAL 3 - Young children enter school ready to learn;  
GOAL 4 - Youth have the opportunity and support to fully participate in all aspects of the school experience;
GOAL 5 - Youth have supports to prevent school dropout, truancy, and disciplinary actions;  
GOAL 6 - Youth are involved and engaged in all aspects of their education and educational planning and are empowered to be advocates for their education needs and pursuits;
GOAL 7 - Youth have an adult who is invested in his or her education during and after his or her time in out-of-home care; and
GOAL 8 - Youth have supports to enter into, and complete, postsecondary education.3
 

Agencies can consider the strengths, weakness, and opportunities in their own state to determine which of these goals to address. After identifying the goals of the collaboration, the agencies must also prioritize the goals in a way that makes the most sense for the issues in their state. For example, because of the requirements of Fostering Connections, many child welfare agencies have found “school stability and continuity” (Goals 1 and 2 of the Blueprint for Change framework) to be one of their key priority areas.

The Blueprint also sets benchmarks toward achieving each goal, and national, state and local examples of how the goals have been achieved.4 These benchmarks and examples can provide additional guidance for states developing their collaborations.

Many states, including Nebraska, Florida, Texas and the District of Columbia, have used the Blueprint to guide conversations and launch collaborative efforts.5

Identify obstacles, challenges, and solutions.

Agencies must work together to identify barriers and challenges to meeting the goals set for youth in care, as well as identify solutions to overcome these obstacles. Frequently each system sees the other as the source of the problem. But more often than not, both agencies will need to make changes. Working together to identify barriers and possible solutions ensures all partners have a common understanding of the mission and plan for moving forward.

Example:

  • In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the child welfare and education agencies developed a detailed joint protocol to promote educational stability for all children in out-of-home placement. The protocol addresses how school stability decisions will be made and reviewed and tackles the difficult issue of transportation to the current school. To eliminate any confusion or conflict, the agreed-upon protocol provides transportation guidelines for short-term placements, identifies who will initiate transportation requests, and explains the types of transportation that will be provided in specific situations.6
     

Start simple.

A simple, easy-to-achieve idea can often be the perfect seed to start good cross-agency relationships and can ultimately spur further
collaboration.

Examples:

  • In Iowa the former state director of education issued a memo in 2009 to all school superintendents in the state stressing the urgency of the education needs of children in foster care and highlighting the resources available in the state and elsewhere that could assist school districts in collaborating with their child welfare counterparts.7
  • Recognizing the challenges that schools face in identifying who is the child’s caretaker or whether they are involved in special education, the Washington, DC Child and Family Services Agency created a simple “enrollment form” to be used whenever a child in care is enrolled in a new school. The form includes information about the child’s parent, living placement, previous school, and whether they are involved in special education. Caseworkers complete this form and ensure that whoever is enrolling the child brings it to the school.8

Start small.

Creating large-scale protocols or programs for all children in care may seem daunting—even though the number of children in foster care is generally a small percentage of the total number of children in school. When that is the case, child welfare and education agencies have been successful in starting with more targeted efforts, or pilot sites, to build momentum and work out any issues before taking policies and practices district or county wide. 

Example:

  • In Cincinnati, Ohio, the Kids in School Rule! (KISR!) pilot project grew out of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between six partner agencies. These agencies committed staff and resources to improving educational outcomes and promoting school stability for approximately 100 children in care who attend 22 of the schools within the Cincinnati Public School system (the schools with the highest percentage of children in care). This pilot project focuses efforts and resources on students in care in these schools only and has a detailed plan to collect controlled data to document the impact of these interventions.9 

Do not avoid the biggest challenges.

While it is important to identify some smaller, short-term goals that the collaboration can set and achieve to see results quickly, it is also imperative to address more complex issues. Confront the inevitable challenges—such as who will pay to transport a child to maintain school stability, or how to overcome confidentiality concerns to share necessary data and information across agencies—by breaking down the complex issues into smaller parts. Success will depend on an openness to learn about and address each agency’s requirements, obstacles, and opportunities, and recognize that these complex issues require sufficient staff time and resources to assess and solve. 

Using transportation as an example, a first step is understanding the law that impacts the issue. For detailed information about transportation costs, see the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education’s brief on this topic, When School Stability Requires Transportation: State Considerations.10

Also, to understand the overlap between right rights and responsibilities of the child welfare and education agencies under the McKinney-Vento and Fostering Connections act, see the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education’s factsheet, Questions and Answers: The Overlap between Fostering Connections and McKinney-Vento Acts.11 To avoid continuing problems and disputes, it is best for education and child welfare to identify jointly the factors to use to determine if it is in a child’s best interest to change schools and to develop a protocol handling these decisions, who will pay, and under what circumstances education or child welfare agencies will be reimbursed.

Examples:

  • Before 2008, efforts to promote school stability for children in care in Connecticut floundered because no agency would assume the cost of transporting children to support school stability. After passage of Fostering Connections, advocates, working with the State Department of Family Services and the State Department of Education, secured Senate Bill 31, which provides that the child welfare system is responsible for the costs of transporting a child from a placement to school, with a $3 million line item in the state budget to support this transportation. Many school districts and child welfare agencies have now developed agreements for addressing transportation, best interest determinations, and school enrollment.12


  • An initial “barrier” to implementing the Fostering Connections Act in Virginia related to ensuring transportation for children to remain in their same school if in their best interest. Recognizing the importance of school stability and continuity, and the need for the education agency to support the success of children in care in other ways, the state child welfare agency agreed to fund transportation. Once this agreement took place, the two agencies were better able to move forward with implementing the other critical pieces of the collaboration, including school-based liaisons to support children in care.13

Maintain the Momentum

Once the collaboration is off the ground, the next challenge is to ensure it continues. Below are some strategies to help ensure that the work continues, that change is institutionalized, and that the collaboration succeeds long-term.
 
Ensure that staff resources within all agencies support the ongoing work.
Child welfare and education agencies, as well as the courts and other community partners, need to devote time, and resources to these issues. While this can be a challenge in tough fiscal times, the creation of dedicated expertise within each agency will help with efficiency and coordination, which ultimately can lead to a cost savings.

Child welfare agencies need to lead by example by establishing a commitment within their agency to having internal expertise and a single point of contact around education issues at the state and local level around education issues who can also contribute to moving the collaborative work forward, including reaching out to education partners and providing training and support within the agency.14

Similarly, state and local education agencies can identify education agency staff to be the child welfare designee, serving as a single point of contact within the schools to assist students with enrollment, obtaining needed supports and services, and providing training to other school staff.15

Many courts around the country also have education liaisons in the courts, who connect with judges involved with juvenile court matters to ensure that the court has access to all necessary education information needs to make decisions in the child’s case. Points of contact in both agencies and the courts create a critical network of communication that can provide the needed supports for students in care.

For more information, see the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education’s issue brief The Role of Points of Contact in Helping Youth Succeed Educationally (forthcoming fall 2011).

Celebrate early successes.

There will always be more challenges and new issues to address. Some may get increasingly complicated as the collaboration moves ahead. Don’t forget to take time to celebrate the successes of the group, either individual agency victories or the results of multi-system collaboration. Also, make sure your collaboration becomes the repository of promising practices around your jurisdiction. Be sure to share those good strategies with everyone. 

Keep leadership engaged and informed.

Buy-in of top leaders is just the beginning. Agency and court leaders need to believe in, and support the ongoing collaborative efforts to achieve long-term success. Leaders must understand the value of the collaboration, and be committed to changes that may take time to achieve. Without leadership continuously holding the collaborative partners accountable, the focus and enthusiasm will lapse and the project will not succeed. Leadership changes mid-collaboration pose another problem. In these instances it is critical to engage the new leaders quickly and demonstrate the activities and successes the collaboration has achieved to date. 

Judicial champions can often help start conversations with old and new agency leadership. Judges often have the power to encourage partners to come, and remain, at the table. Courts must also lead by example, and show commitment to reviewing court policies and practices that impact on school success for children in care. Sometimes changing court rules is needed to ensure juvenile court judges consider the education needs of children.16 Several jurisdictions have used judicial “education checklists” to encourage judges to ask questions about education at every hearing.17 Ask your court to use its leadership and authority to get and keep educators and child welfare agencies working together.

Data drives change and supports progress.

Initially, data can help engage new partners and start the conversation about the education needs of children in care. Data can also be tool to maintain the collaboration’s momentum over time because it provides information on the strengths and weaknesses of the system and the collaboration. Education and child welfare agencies, as well as the courts, are increasingly data-driven and outcomes-based. Everyone wants to learn what works and to show success and achievement (as well as compliance with federal and state mandates). Increasingly, agencies and systems have sophisticated means and tools for achieving these objectives. This can be achieved individually by the agencies and courts, or processes can be devised to share data among the systems. Many states and jurisdictions have developed ways to collect, share, and track important data on education needs and school progress in compliance with child welfare or education confidentiality laws.18

Memorialize good practice with changes to laws and policies.

Key to successful collaboration is a willingness to review any policy or practice, whether new or long standing, to determine whether it is working for children in care. Often, state or local laws or policies serve as barriers to success for children in care. Pursuing changes to laws or policies helps institutionalize the work being done to overcome barriers.

Institutionalize collaboration.

Collaboration takes time. Unless those involved build systems for ongoing relationship building and teamwork, it will end with a change in leadership, or a shift in priorities. To ensure that work around education issues for children in foster care continues, be sure to establish a long-term structure and process for the collaboration (i.e., ongoing workgroup or task force), document procedures (if not in law and policy, then through reports, manuals and guidance), and provide ongoing training for new and old staff and leadership.  

Conclusion

Improving school stability and educational outcomes for children in care requires reforms in how education and child welfare agencies, courts, and other community partners do business both independently and collaboratively. Many states have found ways to come together on behalf of specific students and change entire systems. Successful collaboration is not easy—it is one of the most challenging tasks that agencies and advocates can undertake and one of the most rewarding. Ultimately, the mandates of Fostering Connections cannot be met unless systems work together. The key to building a collaboration is to start the conversation. Start now.

This article was adapted from an issue brief prepared by the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, a project of the ABA Center on Children and the Law. View the full brief and others in the series at: www.americanbar. org/child/education

The Legal Center for Foster Care and Education is a project at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC. It serves as a national technical assistance resource and information clearinghouse on legal and policy matters affecting the education of children in the foster care system.

Endnotes

1 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (hereinafter Fostering Connections), Pub. L. 110-351, 122 Stat. 3949 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 42 U.S.C.).
2 Blueprint for Change: Educational Success for Children in Foster Care (2008) [hereinafter the Blueprint], available for download at www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/center_on_children_and_the_law/education/blueprint_second_edition_ final.authcheckdam.pdf.
4 Id.
5 For more information on using the Blueprint  to guide your state efforts in this area, please contact the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education at ccleducation@staff.abanet.org.
6 See Joint Guidance and Policy and Procedure Guide Governing Implementation of the Educ. Stability Provisions of Fostering Connections, Philadelphia DHS and Philadelphia  School Districts (Jan. 2010) (on file with the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education).
7 See Memo from Judy Jeffrey, Director, Iowa Department of Education to School Superintendents (Sept. 25, 2009), available for download at www.iowa.gov/educate/index.php? option=com_docman&task=doc_ download&gid=8525&Itemid=1507.
8 See “District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency School Enrollment Process,” http://cfsa.dc.gov/DC/CFSA/For+Partners/Social+Workers/ School+Enrollment+Process (last visited May 12, 2011).
9 See Kids in School Rule! Project Description, available for download at www2.americanbar.org/ BlueprintForChange/Documents/ kisr_project_082609.doc.
10 Available at www2.americanbar.org/BlueprintForChange/Documents/foster_education_brief.pdf
11 Available at www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/center_on_children _and_the_law/ education/a_fc_and_mv_overlap _final.authcheckdam.pdf
12 See 2010 Conn. Pub. Acts 10-160.
13 See Va. Dep’t of Educ. & Va. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., Joint Guidance on School Placement for Children in Foster Care, 1 (Dec. 2, 2010), available at www.dss.virginia.gov/family/fc/school_placement.pdf.
14 See Washington, DC, Michigan, Pennsylvania.
15 California, Colorado and Missouri are three states that have foster car liaisons in each school district in the state.
16 For example, in April 2011, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court approved court rules that require juvenile court judges to inquire into education issues for each child at each stage of the child welfare proceeding.
17 The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges developed Asking the Right Questions II: Judicial Checklists to Meet the Educational Needs of Children and Youth in Foster Care, which includes a checklist of critical questions every judge should ask about education in every case, and a checklist of critical questions every judge should ask about education and older youth. The checklist is available at www.ncjfcj.org/images/stories/dept/ppcd/pdf/EducationalOutcomes/education%20checklist%202009.pdf. For a list of many state-specific judicial education checklists, see http://new.abanet.org/blueprintforchange/pages/SearchResult.aspx?k=checklist.
18 See, e.g., the discussion of confidentiality in Solving the Data Puzzle, available at http://new.abanet.org/BlueprintForChange/Documents/solvingthedatapuzzle.pdf. For a full list of state laws that have been enacted to support school stability and continuity for children in care, see www.abanet.org/child/education/publications/state_legislation_ chart_10_5_10_final.doc

 

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