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December 01, 2017

Improving Education for Youth in Foster Care

Julie Butner

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

When a child is in the foster care or juvenile justice systems, the child often experiences instability in both the living and school environments. School has the potential to be a steadying force for good, providing stability and supports to promote learning. As a lawyer or judge responsible for advocating or making decisions for a youth in the legal system, what steps can you take to ensure school stability and progress?

New ABA Policy

At the August 2017 annual meeting of the American Bar Association, the House of Delegates adopted a new education policy that acknowledged the struggles court-involved youth experience in their education, and endorsed two key frameworks to support their education stability and success. 

The development of the Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Children in Foster Care, written in 2007, was led by the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Education Law Center, and Juvenile Law Center. 

It was followed by the development and 2016 release of the Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System, led by the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Juvenile Law Center, Education Law Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

The Blueprints consist of Goals that outline what court-involved youth need to achieve stability and success in school. The Goals are broken down into Benchmarks, providing an easy to follow framework that ensures access to education, promotes stability and inclusion, and helps the youth prepare for higher education and the workforce.

The ABA’s endorsement of these two frameworks calls on judges, lawyers, and other legal practitioners to advocate for improved policies and practices that support court-involved youth. The ABA also calls on federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local legislatures, government agencies, and courts to adopt laws, regulations, policies, and court rules to implement the Blueprints. 

This CLP issue focuses on educational issues for children in the foster care system. Because of this focus, this article details issues raised in the Foster Care Blueprint and provides practical tips for legal advocates on using the framework to support direct advocacy that meets the education needs of children in foster care. Other articles in this issue will discuss system improvement strategies for courts and legal advocates. For a complete discussion of all goals of both Blueprints, see the ABA report1 that accompanied the Resolution. 

Below is a summary of a several of the Foster Care Blueprint goals followed by practice tips and advocacy opportunities. 

Remaining in the Same School

Foster care youth face a challenge most other children do not – changing schools frequently, often without an adult to advocate that they remain in their school of origin. Studies have shown that students in foster care are a “distinctly disadvantaged subgroup” that perform worse than their peers in academic performance, with a higher percentage of students diagnosed with disabilities and held back one or more grades, challenges that are compounded by changing schools.2

Practice Tips: Judges and legal advocates should consider school stability when advocating for and making a placement decision for the child. Federal law now supports the child remaining at the school of origin even when the child moves outside that school’s area, as long as it is in the child’s best interest. The child welfare agency and local education agency must work collaboratively to ensure the student is supported and jointly address how transportation will be provided, arranged, and funded. For guidance on complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act, see the ESSA Implementation Toolkit.

Prompt Enrollment and Transitions

Youth in foster care experience an average of 2.8 living placements, and more than half change schools upon entering foster care, causing them to enroll often in the middle of the school year.3 Transferring students face multiple barriers, such as failure of the schools to deliver records timely, being placed in the wrong classroom, or failing to receive credit for the work done if they did not complete a full school term, leaving them further behind.4

Practice Tips: Judges and legal advocates should identify prompt school enrollment as a priority and address it during court hearings when discussing the placement plan for youth in care. Lawyers can assist caseworkers and foster parents in overcoming roadblocks related to enrollment, academic credit, and extracurricular activities.

Access to Early Childhood 


Many young children who experience abuse and neglect also have developmental delays, and one quarter of all children taken into protective custody are between birth and age three.5 They may have physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social problems, including attachment disorders, cognitive delays, and altered brain development.6 Children who are removed from their home due to neglect or abuse have often experienced trauma. The act of removal itself is considered a system-induced trauma.7

Practice Tips: Even though they have an increased likelihood of adverse childhood experiences, children in foster care are less likely to participate in early intervention programs such as Head Start and counseling that can help them prepare early for school and provide a foundation for learning.8 Legal advocates and judges can help protect children who are too young for school by requesting access to early intervention screenings and approving testing and treatment. Judges and advocates can also ensure young children have access to high-quality care and education settings. 

Preventing School Discipline and Dropout

When youth are frustrated by frequent moves, rough transitions, or life circumstances that have led to child welfare involvement, they are more likely to act out, skip school, or drop out altogether. The trauma of abuse, neglect, removal, and frustration at being behind their peers in school may also contribute to misbehavior by court-involved youth.

Practice Tips: Judges and legal advocates should make sure youth are connected to counselors and staff who are trained to recognize abuse, neglect, and trauma. When facing suspension and expulsion, youth benefit from legal representation, to ensure student rights are protected, alternative disciplinary approaches are considered, and that youth are not pushed to sub-quality alternative schools.

Including Youth in Educational Decisions

Youth in foster care are caught in a system where the courts and various adults control almost all aspects of their lives. The court can tell them where to live and who they can live with; this impacts where they go to school. It is normal for teens, especially older teens, to increasingly want to make decisions about friends, where they spend their time, and other aspects of their lives.9

Practice Tips: Attorneys and judges must include youth in meetings and court proceedings where educational decisions are made. Youth should be informed of their educational rights and encouraged to participate in decision making by attorneys, judges, educators, and child welfare workers.

Supporting Postsecondary Education and Training

Only half of foster care youth graduate from high school by age 18.10 Studies show that youth whose parents did not attend college are at a “distinct disadvantage” in reaching college, staying enrolled, and graduating.11 Youth in foster care may not have adult role models who have attended college and show that postsecondary education is within reach. For those that do reach postsecondary education and training, they need funding and supports, such as housing, to achieve success. 

Practice Tips: Judges and legal advocates have an opportunity to model the many opportunities available to college graduates. They should make sure youth are aware of opportunities for college, career training programs, and financial aid, and advocate to ensure youth have assistance with the application process and access to support programs once enrolled in postsecondary education. Advocates should support state programs that expand foster care beyond age 18 so that youth can receive financial support and housing while pursuing education and/or job training.


Education challenges can arise at many points in a child welfare case: legal actions related to accessing education; school stability; enrollment disputes; special education eligibility, appropriate supports and services; and disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions. Lawyers need to be trained to spot issues when they arise in cases and advocate and seek court action when necessary to achieve better results. The Blueprints provide a framework to best identify the education-related challenges and frames the goals we have for court-involved youth to succeed in their educational pursuits.

Julie Butner, JD, was a policy fellow with the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law, hosted at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

Blueprints for Change

Education Success for Children in Foster Care 

  1. Youth are entitled to remain in their same school when feasible.

  2. Youth are guaranteed seamless transitions between schools and school districts when school moves occur.

  3. Young children enter school ready to learn.

  4. Youth have the opportunity and support to fully participate in all aspects of the school experience.

  5. Youth have supports to prevent school dropout, truancy, and disciplinary actions.

  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.

  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.

  8. Youth have supports to enter and complete postsecondary education.

Education Success for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

  1. Youth are empowered and engaged to make decisions about their own education and future.

  2. Youth have at least one adult who is invested in their education, before, during, and after involvement in the juvenile justice system.

  3. After being charged or adjudicated delinquent, youth remain in the same community school whenever feasible or enroll in a new community school.

  4. Youth involved in the juvenile justice system who are educated in the community receive access to the full range of educational opportunities and supports.

  5. Youth in juvenile justice placements are provided with a high quality educational experience.

  6. Youth in juvenile justice placements are educated in a supportive, positive school environment where they feel safe and empowered.

  7. Youth have access to high quality career pathways programs, especially in juvenile justice placements.

  8. Youth receive supports to prepare for, enter, and complete postsecondary education and training.

  9. Youth have smooth transitions between home schools and schools in juvenile justice placements and receive effective reentry planning and supports.

  10. All marginalized youth—and particularly youth of color, youth with disabilities, girls, LGBQ youth, gender non-conforming and transgender youth, English Language Learners, youth who are involved with both child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and those with intersectional identities—are educated in their home schools rather than being disproportionately assigned to juvenile justice placements, and receive the services, support and protections they need to address their unique barriers to education success.


1. American Bar Association House of Delegates. ABA Resolution 117C Report, August 2017. 

2. Wiegmann, W. et al. “The Invisible Achievement Gap Part 2: How the Foster Care Experiences of California Public School Students Are Associated with Their Education Outcomes,” Stuart Foundation. 2014. 

3. Ibid.

4. National Working Group on Foster Care and Education. Fostering Success in Education: National Fact Sheet on the Educational Outcomes of Children in Foster Care, January 2014. 

5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Information Gateway. Addressing the Needs of Young Children in Child Welfare: Part C—Early Intervention Services,  Nov. 2013. 

6. Ibid.

7. ABA Policy 109B, “Trauma-Informed, Evidence-Based Approaches and Practices on Behalf of Justice System-Involved Children and Youth Who Have Been Exposed to Violence.” American Bar Association. Feb. 2014. “Removal from the home and entry into foster care or a juvenile detention facility can itself be a traumatic experience for children and youth and is referred to as system-induced trauma.”

8. National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, January 2014.

9. Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Parents & Teachers: Teen Growth & Development, Years 15 to 17

10. National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, January 2014; Juvenile Law Center.Community and School Re-entry. 

11. Choy, Susan. Students Whose Parents Did Not Go to College: Postsecondary Access, Persistence, and Attainment. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2001.