Leaving Homeless Children Behind

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Every parent of a child in public school knows that getting that child to and from school is a shared responsibility.  Depending on where within a school district the family lives, the school district might send a school bus, or it might require the parent to take responsibility for getting the child to school.

But there are signs that one “parent” is trying to weasel out of this responsibility. That’s no surprise, since we’re talking about the laziest, most irresponsible parent of all: America’s child welfare systems.   They have the support of groups like the Children’s Defense Fund, which supported legislation that would have pitted foster children against homeless children in order to help child welfare systems evade their responsibility.

The issue is likely to come to a head in Congress this month. The harm inflicted on children by child welfare agencies when those agencies become their  “parents” is well-known and doesn’t need repeating here.  The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed in 2008 in part to stop some of this harm.

Several provisions involve education.  It is a testament to how bad child welfare systems are that Congress said, in effect: We may not be able to stop you from moving foster children from home to home, but at least we’re going to insist that, when you do that, you don’t also force them to change schools.

The law imposed new responsibilities on child welfare systems. Those responsibilities are reasonable.  For example, child welfare agencies have to enroll foster children immediately so they’re not in education limbo for weeks and months while the child welfare agency finds paperwork it never should have lost in the first place.  And it is reasonable to go further and require school districts to accept these children immediately.

But now there are signs that America’s child welfare establishment wants to foist on the schools the responsibility for paying to transport the foster child from her or his new home to the school, regardless of the location of that home. They want to do this even at the expense of what probably is the one group of children with even fewer supports than foster children: homeless children.

The Fostering Connections Act makes clear who Congress assumed would pay when a foster child lived outside a school district’s transportation zone.  It specifically authorized the use of funds from Title IV-E, the huge, open-ended “entitlement” program that covers a large share of state and local foster care costs

But a Congressional Coalition on  Adoption Institute  “Action Guide” suggests that states be forced to raid funds for disadvantaged students under the Title I program, in order to relieve child welfare agencies of their “parental” responsibilities.  On page 18, the same “Action Guide” speaks favorably of raiding the extremely limited funding made available specifically for homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act – even as the number of homeless families has soared 20 percent since 2007

Similarly, the Children’s Defense Fund supported an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have left education and child welfare agencies to fight it out – and eliminated language limiting use of McKinney-Vento funds to one small subset of foster children.

It would not be the first time child welfare systems have raided funds intended to help poor people and pitted one vulnerable population against another.  I’ve blogged here before about the reprehensible practice of states using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families surplus money as a child welfare slush fund.  Now, CDF and others want to launch another such raid on those less fortunate even than foster children.

Homeless kids may be the only group of children with fewer supports than foster children.  Foster children often have middle-class foster parents, a caseworker (albeit one who is often overwhelmed) and maybe a Court-Appointed Special Advocate.  Homeless kids have their homeless parents – and sometimes not even that.

If schools are required to provide transportation for all foster children, that further reduces funding for homeless kids – making it even more likely that those homeless kids will end up as foster children.
 
Politically, if you pit “homeless” against “foster child” homeless loses.  Think of the image each conjures up in the public mind.  Homeless conjures up an image of the panhandler from whom we avert our eyes.  Foster child suggests a child who needs help.
 
But if CDF gets its way, foster children actually will lose out, too.

The one financial incentive a child welfare agency has to be careful about not placing a child far from her or his school, is having to pay the costs of transportation. Take that incentive away and it is likely to further reduce educational stability for foster children.  It also reduces any incentive to stop moving children from foster home to foster home. 

It wouldn’t be the first time CDF’s greed has backfired.  Their successful opposition to ending the IV-E entitlement and replacing it with flexible funding actually cost states at least $5 billion since 2005.

The ESEA amendment that emerged from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee last week rejected CDF’s language and instead makes clear where the responsibility lies.  That language requires education and child welfare agencies to reach agreements concerning “How foster care maintenance payments will be used to help fund the transportation of children in foster care to their schools of origin…” [emphasis added]

Some states already are doing the right thing.  The National Association for Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports that Virginia and Vermont have refused to pit foster children against homeless children. They already have agreements to use other funding sources to supplement Title IV-E for transportation costs. Vermont is using Social Services Block Grant funds and Virginia is using its innovative Comprehensive Services Act, which pools state funds for child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and other purposes.

Congress should encourage states to follow these models.  Congress should resist pressure to weaken the current Senate language and leave homeless children behind.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org