Working collaboratively with schools can set children in foster care up for educational success. This can lead to greater stability for the child at school and home.1 As a lawyer advocating for the educational needs of a child in foster care, you will need to engage with schools to understand the child’s school experiences and educational progress. Understanding your duties related to gathering education information and how to approach schools helps streamline your approach so you can advocate effectively.
The ABA Standards of Practice for Lawyers Who Represent Children in Abuse and Neglect Cases outline several duties related to education.2 As part of the duty to investigate,3 attorneys should regularly collect the student’s education information (e.g., report cards, attendance data) and ask schools for information on the student’s academic progress, engagement, and behavior. While assessing how the child functions at school, lawyers for children should watch for red flags that point to problems the student may be facing.
How you interact with schools varies depending on the needs of the child. As reflected in the ABA Standards, you may need to seek appropriate educational services, including special education, to address physical, mental, or developmental disabilities.4 Additionally, you may need to attend “school case conferences”5 to address enrollment disputes, discipline issues, special education services, and/or mental health issues that require advocacy to ensure the youth receives protections. This article provides tips for children’s attorneys on how to work with schools to ensure the best results for your child clients.
What to Know Before Approaching Schools
Generally, it is best to approach schools with a collaborative mindset. The student, school, and caretakers all want the student to have a stable, positive school experience. Because the student and his or her caretakers will likely be involved with the school after court intervention ends and the attorney is no longer involved in the case, having a positive rapport with the school can benefit both the short-term and long-term relationships for the student and his or her family. However, sometimes more zealous advocacy is needed to ensure your client’s rights as a student are protected.
Before approaching the school, do your homework and respect the school’s culture and environment, and the staff’s time. Be aware of how schools are organized and structured, and how they fundamentally operate to maximize their effectiveness when advocating for students.
To comply with confidentiality laws and protect their students, schools are often cautious when sharing information with attorneys. Be sensitive to client confidentiality and privacy issues, and become well-versed in education and child welfare privacy laws to communicate with the school appropriately and have reasonable expectations about information sharing.
Generally, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires parent permission before disclosing students’ education records. However, an exception in FERPA allows lawyers to access education records by attaining a court order.6 Be sure to understand these restrictions and obtain parental consent or a court order to secure written education records needed to represent your client.
Students in foster care often experience frequent changes in their case, which also affects who has access to their education records and who can make educational decisions for the student. First, you may need to periodically update the school on who has legal access to the student’s education information. Second, confirm that the school has identified an appropriate educational decision maker, particularly for students with special education needs.7 It is often best for your client’s birth parents to make educational decisions, but in some cases, another individual may be given authority to make educational decisions.
How to Approach Schools
When introducing yourself, provide written official documentation that you are the child’s attorney. State the purpose for contacting the school, ensuring it relates to the child’s learning and well-being. If the inquiry requires a prolonged conversation, always schedule an appointment and try not to show up unannounced. If the meeting is scheduled during school hours, be mindful that educators may need to address possible interruptions immediately. Last, avoid legal and child welfare jargon and consider bringing brief, easy-to-read handouts that explain your role.8
When is the best time to contact school staff?
Be familiar with and respect the school calendar. For non time-sensitive issues, remember the beginning of the school year, ends of grading periods, and the weeks before and after school breaks are hectic. Educators usually prefer to first communicate via e-mail so the school day is not interrupted and they have a written record of who you are.
Who should be contacted?
The climate, communication structure, and operations within a school differ widely depending on its administration. Becoming familiar with the basic roles of different school staff can help you understand who to contact for certain issues.9
The school district, or the local education agency (LEA), addresses local standards, transportation policies, codes of conduct, personnel decisions, facilities construction, school area redistricting, and more. Contact school district employees to obtain information from various specialists (e.g., behavior, program, and transportation specialists) who can clarify district policies.
The principal runs the school’s operations, manages the budget, and handles disciplinary issues. Contact the principal when inquiring about official documentation, any information not publicly available, or any issue for which the school can be held liable (e.g., injury to a student). The principal is typically the best person to contact about school discipline, special education referrals, or legal issues.
Teachers run classroom operations, teach academic content to prepare students for standardized tests, and manage classroom behavior. Contact the student’s teacher(s) when inquiring about the student’s demeanor or academic performance.
Other school staff work with the student regularly, so be sure to ask your client or the principal for their names. Students may see a special education teacher, English Language Learner teacher, librarian, Specials teacher (e.g., physical education, music, art, etc.), and/or coach. Children in care with a history of trauma may also work with the school’s guidance counselor, social worker, psychologist, or other support personnel.
What to Share with Educators
Depending on the situation, teachers may not know the child is in foster care. Some students in foster care, particularly older youth, may not want their teachers to know for fear of being stigmatized or singled out by school staff or peers. Before disclosing this information to teachers or other school staff, find out who already knows information about your client. Determine who should know your client is in foster care and how much information needs to be shared for your client’s educators to better understand the student’s situation and educational needs. Only information that would help the school meet the child’s education needs should be disclosed.
When explaining your client’s needs, keep in mind that educators may not have a positive impression of the foster care system, and may rely on their assumptions or just one or two experiences. It may be necessary to provide a basic overview of the foster care system; helpful tools and summaries can be found online.10
Using Education Information
When investigating the child’s school life, note any positive or negative patterns in the child’s behavior. This may reveal underlying reasons for the student’s rise or decline in academic performance and engagement.
This information may be useful when asserting your client’s education rights within the school setting, particularly regarding enrollment disputes, special education and/or mental health services, and disciplinary hearings. When advocating for the child, strive to keep the child in the same school if it is in his or her best interest. If the school changes, ensure all education records are transferred promptly. Seek appropriate services, particularly for students with IEPs or those suffering from trauma. You may discover certain triggers cause a student to negatively react and/or behavioral interventions that work for the student. These findings could help schools approach your client’s disciplinary hearing in a rehabilitative manner.
In the long run, creating a positive relationship with your client’s school helps educators ensure your client’s needs are addressed. It also fosters clearer lines of communication among caretakers in the student’s life, which promotes a supportive environment and increases stability for the student.
In addition to gathering information from your client, educational records and information on a student’s school functioning helps you better advocate for the child in court. For example, if a child’s group home placement has affected academic performance, that information can be useful to advocate for a living arrangement that will improve the student’s academic performance and engagement at school. It can also bolster a request for services to protect and advance the child’s legal interests. This may include school-based services (e.g., mental health counseling, special education services) and out-of-school services (e.g., tutoring, drug and alcohol treatment).
When advocating for a child in foster care to receive support to attain a quality education, aim to set the student up for long-term success. Championing the student’s educational rights and needs will likely impact the student’s ability to achieve permanency. Stabilizing a client’s school experience can have a significant impact on the permanency goal for the child, particularly by speeding up the process towards reunification or adoption.11
Advocating for children in foster care almost always requires engaging with their schools. Given the amount of time students spend in school and the importance of educational success, the school can play a key role determining students’ futures. Because children in foster care experience major instability, you play an important role helping to bridge gaps between your client and his or her school. When you investigate thoroughly and respectfully communicate with the school, you can attain your client’s educational information, ensure your child client’s educational needs are met, and foster a positive relationship between the student and school.
Stacy Ham, MT, is a law student at Georgetown University. She interned at the ABA Center on Children and the Law during summer 2017, focusing on education projects.
How Schools Can Support Children in Foster Care
Tips for Administrators
- Have a responsive system in place. A system of supports in the building that is responsive to the needs of a child in foster care may require training school staff on the unique issues children in foster care experience and on trauma-informed practices and strategies.
- Minimize school changes. Voice opinions about what is in the child’s best interest, which is often to remain at the current school. If the child changes schools, ensure records (including IEPs) and credits are transferred promptly.
- Keep contact information updated. Schools should maintain contact information for adults in the child’s life. Cases change quickly so it is key to know who to contact in emergencies, and who has legal authority to make education decisions. Find out which adults should be involved in meetings or communications about the child (birth parents, foster parents, social worker, child’s attorney, or others).
Tips for Teachers1
- Ask about the child’s educational needs. Contact the child’s caseworker and caretakers to obtain information about the child’s education history, learning style, and educational needs.
- Develop a line of communication. Communicate consistently with the current caretaker (may be a foster parent), and determine if communication can and should be established with the child’s birth parents (may depend on several factors, such as parents’ legal standing and stage of the child welfare case).
- Carefully create and choose assignments. Be considerate of children who are not living at home with a parent or biological relative. Family trees, genetics questions, or other projects requiring family photos or family history can be challenging and traumatizing for children in foster care.
General Tips for Educators2
- Avoid labeling students in the foster care system. Only share information about the student’s involvement in the foster care system with other professionals at the school who need to know to support the child’s education.
- Treat children in foster care like all children. Have the same high expectations for success for them as their peers. However, ensure supports and structures are in place to meet the unique needs of students in foster care.
- Use a trauma-informed approach. Be mindful of the possible trauma a student in foster care may have experienced and provide positive supports, strategies, and interventions that avoid the possibility of retraumatization. Examples include avoiding punitive discipline, and being sensitive to child’s need for consistency and stability.
1. For more classroom strategies, see: The Center for Future of Teaching and Learning. Ready to Succeed in the Classroom Summary Report, 2010.
2. Juvenile Law Center, Education Law Center. Meeting the Educational Needs of Students in the Child Welfare System, 2012.
1. National Working Group on Foster Care. Research Highlights on Education and Foster Care, Jan. 2014.
2. ABA Center on Children and the Law. “ABA Standards of Practice for Lawyers Who Represent Children in Abuse and Neglect Cases.”
3. ABA Standards, C2.
4. ABA Standards, C4.
5. ABA Standards, C2.
6. Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act Q&A Sheet, 2013.
7. Stotland, Janet et al. Special Education Decisions for Children in Foster Care: Everyone Has a Role, Child Law Practice 26(2), April 2007.
8. U.S. Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway. “What is Child Welfare? A Guide for Educators.” Factsheet, August 2012.
9. National Association of State Boards of Education. How Schools Work & How to Work with Schools, 2014.
10. U.S. Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway. “2015 Foster Care Statistics.” Numbers and Trends, March 2017.
11. Kelly, Kristin. Courtroom Educational Advocacy for Children in Foster Care. ABA Section of Litigation, Children’s Rights Litigation, Winter 2015.