Gabriel was 16 when he came into contact with the child welfare system for the second time. He was minimally engaged in school, but he flew under school administrators’ radars because he was well liked and had no behavioral issues in the classroom.
Records revealed that Gabriel was actually years behind his grade level, despite fairly steady attendance, but he had never been assessed for an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 accommodations. Gabriel hoped to enroll in an alternative charter school that served at-risk youth who were off-track in regular school.
Even though his mother was uncooperative, Gabriel’s probation officer and therapist were supportive of his plan. So, Gabriel got started with the admissions process.
However, Gabriel’s education plans fell through. A fight with his mother led to a child welfare investigation. Though a family friend was willing to take responsibility for Gabriel, the court and child welfare agency determined he would be better off elsewhere. After less than two weeks at a group home far from home, where regular family contact was impossible and his only education option was to enroll temporarily in a high school that wasn’t able to meet his needs, Gabriel ran away and found his way to the streets.
He became a “dual status youth,” picking up multiple charges and shuttling in and out of detention. Education could have been a positive force in his life and a path forward, but that was not the case. Gabriel’s new delinquency probation officer, with a high caseload and little time, focused only on ensuring Gabriel was attending his probation meetings. Each time Gabriel was released from detention, he was returned to his mother’s care, despite the growing evidence that she had significant substance abuse and mental health disorders. She was eventually hospitalized after a serious mental break and was unable to support Gabriel further.
Amid the chaotic events of his life, Gabriel’s education became little more than an afterthought for the many adults who worked with him. Ultimately, Gabriel was committed to the state juvenile justice agency until age 18 and, to anyone’s knowledge, never returned to a traditional school setting.
The Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps defines dual status youth as children “who come into contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and occupy various statuses in terms of their relationship to the two systems.” Dual status youth make up a large population: One study from Washington indicated that as many as 67 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system had some contact with the child welfare system. Another recent report stated that nearly 30 percent of youth in the child welfare system also have cases in the juvenile justice system.
The education outcomes for dual status youth are exceptionally poor. In a study of dual status youth in Arizona, researchers found that 67 percent of the youth were chronically truant, more than half were more than one year behind in school and at least 44 percent required special education services.
National reform efforts to support dual status youth have focused primarily on improving collaboration between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. While this is a crucial first step, education systems must be incorporated as a central partner if we are to significantly improve opportunities for this population.
In Gabriel’s case, these three systems’ lack of accountability and collaboration contributed to his eventual disconnection from school and descent into the deep end of the juvenile justice system. For youth like him, it is pivotal that adults in the child welfare, juvenile justice and education systems collaborate not only to help each other, but also to help children transform into successful adults.
Achieving and sustaining this level of collaboration is a complex task. Each of these agencies must make a shared commitment to prioritizing education — not just theoretically, but in terms of staff time, training and resource allocation. They must also work together to develop detailed plans for coordination and integration of services, including thoughtful, responsible information- and data-sharing.
Education professionals at all levels should have meaningful involvement in this collaborative process. Leaders from state education agencies play a key role in establishing partnerships and setting the tone for ongoing collaboration. District and school administrators should be involved in fostering connections between local child welfare, juvenile justice and education agencies, thinking through overall service coordination, and ensuring that district and school staff have the necessary training to meet the educational needs of dual status youth.
Finally, teachers and school staff who work directly with these youth and observe their strengths and needs on a daily basis must have opportunities to voice their unique perspective, both at the individual case and process development levels.
There are many strategies that have been used to support the education needs of students in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and at-risk youth more generally, that can be applied in the dual status youth context. Examples include:
- Hiring and co-locating dedicated “educational liaisons” trained to address the needs of specific populations of youth within child welfare and juvenile justice agency offices.
- Forming multidisciplinary education teams that include professionals from each system as well as family members and others — such as mentors, coaches and court-appointed special advocates — to create shared accountability for helping the youth set and work toward school-related goals.
- Providing training, resources and support to ensure that parents and caregivers are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to advocate for the education rights of system-involved students.
More research must be conducted so we can serve this population effectively. Dual status youth are disproportionately youth of color, so research should investigate whether dual status youth of color face unique or greater education obstacles than their peers. Researchers could also evaluate the hypothesis that certain events, such as school changes, placement changes and detention, have a particularly negative impact on their education outcomes. Lastly, research should assess potential interventions to determine best practices for improving education outcomes for these vulnerable youth.
Education, child welfare and juvenile justice professionals, along with the research and advocacy communities, must come together and recognize the urgent importance of making education a lifeline for dual status youth. Students like Gabriel deserve nothing less.
Rachel Velcoff Hults is an attorney and chief operating officer for National Center for Youth Law’s Foster Youth Education Initiative.
Atasi Uppal is a staff attorney for the NCYL, part of the Juvenile Justice and FosterEd teams.
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