Why children in residential treatment need specialized education

special education, Los Angeles, AB 403, HEC, Hillsides Education CenterThe debate has begun in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and other state capitols about how to best provide for the most vulnerable children and families in our communities. Assembly Bill 403, which is being introduced in the State Assembly during the current legislative session, will outline for years to come the service parameters and funding for children who, for whatever reason, must be separated from their families. The bill envisions sparingly removing children from their homes only after exhaustive attempts to keep the family intact, using effective treatment models that shorten the time away from home, and significantly engaging parents and other family members to realistically prepare for reunification. Treatment centers, such as Hillsides, will focus more on stabilization, assessment, and long-term permanent planning for these children in a much more abbreviated period of time. This approach is supported by research and is intended to better use limited public funding to more effectively meet the needs of the most vulnerable children in the child welfare system.

Such a model of care assumes that only those children with the most acute need will be directed to residential treatment centers. Indeed, already today, this is the case. One of the major challenges with successfully implementing such a treatment approach has to do with accessing the most appropriate education while the child is in residential treatment.

Although many organizations like Hillsides offer specialized educational programs, children dealing with acute trauma are being transported to public school facilities unless the organization is deemed the “most appropriate” educational setting. In principle it would seem best that children receive the most-appropriate indicated education but in practice, the challenge of placing a child already traumatized on a bus and sending the child off to school unaccompanied by staff and away from the therapeutic environment is disruptive and significantly threatens the integrity of treatment.

At Hillsides more than 50 percent of the residents are transported each day to public schools in Pasadena. Two full-time staff members are required to coordinate these off-campus educational services, dealing with residents who are experiencing significant challenges in schools daily that are not well-equipped to address their emotional issues. Some residents are disruptive in what is often a chaotic setting, resulting in suspensions from schools. Others experience anxiety as they struggle with classmates and teachers who are ill- equipped to address these issues.

For many of these residents, the end result is yet another failed educational endeavor and additional trauma.

All this makes the task of stabilizing children and expediting their reunification with family and their community of origin even more difficult. Insisting these children receive such poor educational services under the guise of the “most appropriate” educational setting is disingenuous and only increases the risk of failure now and in the long term for these children.

Hillsides joins with other foster care advocates asking the Pasadena Board of Education and the leadership of Pasadena Unified School District to review how it addresses the needs of youth in foster care who are enrolled in its schools and to use funds especially ear marked for these youth to develop better instructional strategies for these students. All of us have a sincere interest in making education a successful experience for the children we serve. Hillsides stands ready to collaborate with PUSD to develop effective instructional services that not only provide for the most appropriate education but to do so without sacrificing the therapeutic environment necessary to successfully address the acute needs of the children we serve.

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