Information Sharing – The Impact on Educational Performance of Youth in Foster Care
A Review of the Literature
On average, a child who enters the child welfare system will spend approximately two years in foster care. Youth in foster care contend with a number of challenges that impact their well-being over the course of their lifetime. Often times the instability in their residences and schools, is overshadowed by the stresses of the abuse or neglect they suffered to get them placed in the child welfare system. The machine of the child welfare system doesn’t always put a focus on the overall well-being of youth in its care. As more stakeholders are introduced, the needs and resources expands for these youth. Many of the children in the child welfare system have a number of needs, which makes it necessary for other agencies to be involved in their overall care. The educational system, early intervention system health care system (mental and physical), the juvenile and criminal justice systems are a few of the systems that have access points of interest to these youth. Much of the work required to provide the proper care, tools, resources and support for the youth in care is administered by these different systems.
The biggest challenge in the U.S. foster care system, is the lack of transparency and information sharing between the agencies, and service providers entrusted to advocate for and protect the youth now in their care. Providing the most effective care, is essential to achieving the best outcomes possible for foster youth. Education is key to altering life outcomes and the sharing of information is essential to impacting the educational performance of youth in foster care.
Challenges that youth face in foster care
With so many youth in need, social workers have a case load double or triple their individual capacity, and the bureaucracy of this machine seems to create silos where all can be lost. The lack of priority on their overall well-being, has often created a gap in the conversations and information sharing between the child welfare system, service providers, care givers and educators. This void also impedes the tools, support, and resources these youth need to find success as adults. Exploring the challenges that youth face in the foster care system, academics have found three areas of difficulty for youth especially in regard to educational success. Hahnel & Van Zile (2012) in their article The Other Achievement Gap, identify mobility, lack of collaboration between systems serving youth, and the lack of educational advocacy as those three key areas of difficulty (437-438). They examine the failures of both the educational system and the welfare legislation in regard to creating stability to help create better outcomes for youth in care.
Mobility or lack of stability that foster youth face in out-of-home care plays a significant role in the negative educational outcomes that they experience. Foster youth on average will have one to two home placement changes per year, and over two-thirds will attend three or more elementary schools (Hahnel & Van Zile, 2012, p. 446). Having to navigate a system that often times seems to be working against them, school mobility creates an increase in academic difficulties. The changes in schools so frequently hinders the academic progress, and foster youth fall farther and farther behind every time they change schools. Attendance, low test scores, and grade retention are a few symptoms of the mobility cause. Children in foster care struggle academically and socially in school at higher rates than their peers. As many as 75% of foster youth perform below grade level; 50-80% have been retained at least one year in school; and more than 50% of foster children do not graduate from high school” (Hahnel & Van Zile, 2012, p. 443).
Moving from residence to residence often causes delays in enrollment and a loss of academic credits due to transfers in the middle of semesters. Chambers & Palmer (2011), found that youth lose anywhere from four and six months of academic progress with each school change due to a multitude of factors (p. 1106). As they attempt to deal with the transition of moving to a new home, they are faced with the new teachers, a new curriculum, and new surroundings. Living in this world of never-ending flux, not only impacts the youth, but it creates challenges for the educators, care givers and service providers to fully assess their needs. As youth attempt to transition, often times their records never arrive at their new school, or they get lost or misplaced. This lack of information sharing adds to the challenges that foster youth face.
Lack of Information Sharing
In addition to moving from home to home and school to school, many of these youth are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and live in the most disenfranchised communities. Between delayed school enrollments, losing credits due to mid-semester transfers, and being misdiagnosed or undiagnosed regarding their special education status, children lose countless hours of meaningful instructional time over the course of their time in care (Hahnel & Van Zile, 2012, p. 445). In an effort to improve the educational outcomes for youth in foster care, national policy and practice was introduced. In 2008, the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was enacted. This act emphasizes educational stability by requiring districts to either keep students in their school of origin or be transferred to and enrolled promptly in a new school. (Cox, 2013, p. 60). Even though laws are in place, there are still barriers to creating open and stable collaboration for the greater good of these youth. Many agencies that provide direct services to the same youth, face challenges because of lack of interpretation and implementation of these laws. Case loads, a lack of follow-thru, and interpretation of laws create a breakdown in collaboration. Studies show that interagency collaboration is important to improving educational outcomes for youth in foster care as is educational advocacy.
Lack of Educational Advocacy
Children in foster care rarely have consistent support around them that encourages a well-rounded self-concept, or the pursuit of advanced education. Not having a well-integrated educational advocate or participation from the care givers, service providers, or families creates additional hurdles. As Beisse & Tyre (2013), acknowledge the way to overcome these barriers to school success, children in foster care need caring and knowledgeable adults who can support their educational development (p. 2). Due to a lack of motivation, or clarity many foster caregivers are less likely to be involved. During their study, they found that school social workers can play a vital role in supporting caregiver involvement (Beisse & Tyre, p. 17).
Alternatives and Models of Success
Foster care is defined as the raising or supervision of foster children, as orphans or delinquents, in an institution, group home, or private home, usually arranged through a government or social-service agency that provides remuneration for expenses. (Dictionary.com Unabridged. 2014). The foster care system has often been under fire and criticized for the number of youth in care, and how it handles those youth once they get into the system. What happens when the system designed to help and support underserved and disadvantaged youth fails? Allen & Vacca, (2012) address this very concern. They examine four alternatives in their study, The Milton Hershey School, Boys Town, Nebraska, and Kinderhaus, and the Seed Foundation. In their research of these long-term care alternatives, these four models have been more successful than the U.S. Foster Care system of achieving their goal. “We continue to embrace a foster care system that has and is failing. The time has come to incorporate the success of the four programs reviewed and embrace them as a pathway to provide a better foster care system for our youth” (qtd. in Allen & Vacca, p. 4).
All four of these models share similarities and success for the youth that they provide care for. They all feature a collective residential communal housing component, parental entities, and integrated school and family counseling. These four models demonstrate a collaborative approach to creating long term positive outcomes for foster care youth. Three of these four models are located here in the United States. SEED Foundation, located in Washington, D.C., follows a boarding school template, and integrates a rigorous academic program with a nurturing residential program which teaches life skills and provides a safe and secure living arrangement (Allen & Vacca, 2012, p. 1070).
The Milton Hershey School, is a twelve month K-12 program where students live in houses on campus with their house parents. Their main goal is for students to leave school prepared to enter life as a fully functional adult. In addition to earning scholarship and credits to cover the most of their costs associated with a college degree, The Milton Hershey School provides on-going support and guidance once a student graduates for at least five years by career counselors (Allen & Vacca, 2012 p. 1069).
Finally, Boys Town, Nebraska, provides a residential family atmosphere for boys and girls that have been abused and neglected by their families. Their services range from a secure residential treatment facility in the village of Boys Town, Nebraska to several outpatient clinics, providing an Integrated Continuum of Child and Family Services at sites throughout the country (Allen & Vacca, 2012, p. 1069). Alternate options to foster care are limited, but those few alternatives may better serve the most disenfranchised of our society.
As Perry & Fusco, (2013) acknowledge that, “For the child welfare system to best meet its goals of safety, permanency, and well-being, it needs to effectively partner with other systems” (p. 3). The opportunity for service providers, care givers, and stakeholders to positively impact the lives of youth in foster care exists. As youth work to navigate through the challenges of being a child, they are saddled with the additional burden of the being changed by the experience of being in foster care. Many of the leaders in the work to change the child welfare system have agreed and identified that addressing mobility, information sharing, and educational advocacy are essential to impacting the educational outcomes of youth in foster care. Until we identify and adopt the key components of successful models foster children will continue to lag behind in their education.
Allen, B. S., & Vacca, J., S. (2011). Bring back orphanages – An alternative to foster care? Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1067-1071.
Beisse, K., & Tyre, A., (2013). Caregiver involvement in the education of youth in foster care: An exploratory study. School Social Work Journal, 37(2), (1-20). Retrieved from http://newman.richmond.edu:2384/docview/1429623297?accountid=14731
Casey Family Programs. (2012, August). Shifting resources in child welfare to achieve better outcomes for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.casey.org/media/ShiftingResourcesExecSum.pdf
Chambers, C., & Palmer, E. (2011). Educational stability for children in foster care. Touro Law Review, 26(4), 1103-1130.
Cox, T., (2013). Improving educational outcomes for children and youths in foster care. Children & Schools, A Journal of The National Association of Social Workers, 36(3). Retrieved from http://newman.richmond.edu:2512/content/35/1/59
Foster care. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/foster care
Hahnel, J., & Van Zile, C. (2012). The other achievement gap: Court-dependent youth and educational advocacy. Journal of Law & Education, 41(3), 435-481.
O’Brien, M., (2012). Knowledge transfer resulting from the improving educational outcomes for children in care conference: How it is helping a child welfare organization to build a long term educational strategy. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(6), 1150-1153.
Perry, M. A., & Fusco, R. A. (2013). Child welfare practice in a systems of care framework. In Contemporary issues in child welfare practice (pp. 1-16). NY: Springer Science+Business Media. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-8627-5