Keeping Foster Youths’ School Connection

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Veronica Carrillo, a veteran employee of Child Protective Services in Sacramento County, Calif., still remembers the frantic afternoons child caseworkers once devoted to “bed finding.”

A worker assigned the file of a child removed from his or her parents was also responsible for finding a relative or a foster home with whom the child could stay.

She may have had lists of vacancies from some of the county’s private foster care agencies, but she always had to make the decision without knowing what all the agencies had available.

“If it was Friday, and the child had to be placed soon, it was whoever replied first,” said Virginia D’Amico, the project specialist for foster youth services for the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE). “This is how it’s done in a lot of places.”

As a result of this process, many children were separated not only from their families but also from their schools – even when there was an available bed in the school district where the child had been living. Or, their school records were lost in the process of moving hastily from one school to another.

Even before Sacramento County set out to solve the problem, it was well known among professionals that children were more likely to succeed in foster care if they stayed in a familiar school setting.

Education stability is important to many child welfare advocates because, in many states, foster youths often experience multiple placements as they continue to age through the system. Nonprofit litigator Children’s Rights recently filed a class action lawsuit against Texas, citing the frequency with which it moves older foster youths from place to place.

“If you give a kid an educational foundation,” explained Bob Wilson, executive director of Sacramento Child Advocates, “it doesn’t matter what the foster system does to him. He or she will be less likely to wind up in jail or the streets.”

Despite its shortcomings – and everyone agrees it has some – the county’s new School Connect database is still better than the systems in most jurisdictions for placing foster children. Thus the Sacramento model is likely to gain attention across the country if the U.S. Senate’s vision for an overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act comes to fruition.

 How it works

Technology offered an obvious solution for enhancing education stability in Sacramento. With funding from the state, SCOE created a database called Foster Focus that helped the schools to access the educational records of foster children. Then it unveiled a second database that enabled the social workers to use ZIP codes to place children in homes that were nearer to their schools.

Twenty other California counties are now using Foster Focus. The second database, School Connect, was created with money left over from the first project. Since January, the Sacramento social workers have been using it as a starting point for placement decisions.

The social worker can use it to search for a home near a foster child’s school; it will also cross-reference dietary restrictions and other secondary considerations in the potential home.

Before the database came online, Sacramento CPS relieved the burden of placement searches from file-carrying caseworkers and created a central placement unit, headed by Carrillo, with eight social workers focused on finding relatives who will take a child and five whose jobs are to find the right foster care placement.

Where once dozens of caseworkers were seeking available lists from any of 50 agencies, now placement specialists are searching one database of about 1,400 foster homes, with the goal of keeping a child close to school.

New frustrations

School Connect has created new problems for the county’s foster family agencies (FFA), private providers CPS contracts with to recruit and manage foster homes.

Andrees Abrahams of EMQ, one of the larger foster care providers, says the placement unit relies too heavily on ZIP codes, and does not make as many phone calls as the caseworkers ought to be doing. She thinks it also has weakened the relationship between the placement unit and the foster care providers.

“Give us a call, get into more details about … if it’s a good match,” said Abrahams, who serves as executive director of EMQ’s foster care and adoption services. “We might find a really great family that might be outside the ZIP, but is … willing to drive a child to his school.”

Among other things, the software provides a text field where a foster parent can indicate whether he or she is willing to drive to a distant school every day. But this information would not be readily available to a caseworker who is just searching by ZIP code.

The frustration is mutual. According to Carrillo, her placement unit’s biggest problem is that many of the private foster agencies do not upload information on available homes often enough. When her placement workers contact the homes, they sometimes learn belatedly that homes are full, or that families have been decertified or have moved to a different ZIP code.

“That hinders us in finding matched homes,” Carrillo said. “It behooves them, business-wise, to keep this updated.”

Abrahams explains: “It’s not a complicated database, but it is tedious. We not only have to do entry in School Connect, we have to do it in our own system, so you’re in a position where you have to duplicate. Our database is not accessible to the county, nor would we want it to be.”

She accepts the need for School Connect. “We already know the outcomes for foster youth in education aren’t the greatest,” she said. But she thinks it is time for the county to seek the opinion of the foster agencies before making any more changes.

“We’ve been using it since January of 2011,” Abrahams said. “I’m not sure anyone has asked us how we like it.”

D’Amico said the county built School Connect “on the cheap and in a hurry.” In the future, she hopes it can be improved by using a mapping approach that would allow the placement unit to search both for available homes in the area and families that would be a good match and are willing to drive the child back to his or her original school.

 Federal changes coming?

An amendment successfully offered by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and added to an education reform bill by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would overcome whatever resistance exists in other regions to keeping foster children enrolled in the schools they were attending before the county intervened.

In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which encouraged child welfare systems to, among other things, maintain educational stability for the child by providing transportation back to the school of origin.

But that law put no demands on school districts, many of which have strict rules prohibiting children from attending schools outside the region in which they live.

The Senate bill now under consideration in Congress would require school districts to create plans that enable foster youth to stay in their home schools, or help them make a seamless transition to a new school.

The requirement was added to the HELP Committee’s original bill through an amendment offered by Franken that passed, 13-9.  

“It’s pretty astounding how many homes they’re in throughout their lives,” said Franken, speaking during the committee hearing about the high number of placements some foster youths experience. “The least we can do is keep that continuity” of school.

The Senate bill, for the first time, would place responsibility on school districts to continue to enroll children who have moved from a school’s area only because they have been removed from their parents’ homes.  

If remaining in the home school is not in the child’s best interest, the bill would mandate that the child should be “immediately enrolled” in a new school, “even if the child is unable to produce records normally required for enrollment.” The clause is designed to address what has become a common problem for foster children: lost or missing documentation that causes long delays when they must change school districts. 

Members of both parties were wary about the amendment providing for foster children’s continued enrollment in their home schools. Ranking committee member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)  all voiced concern over how states would pay for transporting students to their old school districts.

The amendment that passed would require educational and child welfare agencies to enter into an agreement on “how foster care maintenance payments will be used to help fund the transportation of children in foster care to their schools of origin.”

The 2008 Fostering Connections legislation appears to allow federal IV-E foster care funding to address most of the transportation costs.

States can use IV-E money for “reasonable travel for the child to remain in the school in which the child is enrolled at the time of placement as an allowable foster care maintenance cost,” according to the law.

“The transportation side is important to big states that have a lot of roads,” Murkowski said. Burr suggested “maybe some limitations on distance.”

“Yeah, it’s going to cost some money, sometimes, for a kid to get transportation,” Franken said later in the debate, slightly frustrated by the friction on transportation costs. “These are wards of the state. This is our responsibility.”

Similar transportation costs for homeless and runaway children who are awaiting placement into foster care are covered under the McKinney-Vento Act. That law requires school districts to provide students experiencing homelessness with transportation to and from their school of origin.