How education is failing youth in foster care

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By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO

A recent article in the Press-Telegram reporting the grand jury investigation of a number of school districts’ use of funds intended to benefit youth in foster care was an eye opener, pointing to the failure of school systems to adequately address the needs of children in the foster care system. In spite of the best of intentions and the availability of significant funding, the articled noted the inability of most school systems to effectively address absenteeism, school disruption, and graduation rate. Inconsistency regarding the utilization of additional funding is evident from school district to school district, creating enormous discrepancies regarding services available to support youth in foster care. Since these youth often move between school districts because of the lack of resources to maintain them within their school district of origin, these discrepancies have a negative impact on them.
Much has been done to convene policy makers, school officials, guardians, service providers, and advocates to address this crisis over the last several years but the failure to communicate effectively and stay focused on the child has led to disarray. The ineffectiveness of the education and child welfare system has placed children in foster care at risk academically and, in some instances, physically because of inadequate programs unprepared to address their complex needs.
Part of the problem is a result of school districts having used an influx of new funding to address budget deficits rather than develop specific services for youth in foster care. The lack of direction from the California Department of Education regarding the use of these funds and no system to account for how these funds actually benefit foster children has only added to the discrepancies sited in the article. The financial incentive of school districts to develop services once contracted to specialized providers has stretched their capacity to adequately serve these children and jeopardized the quality of care they receive.
This chaotic situation is at the root of the absenteeism, school disruption, and ultimately lower graduation rates for children in the foster care system. The failure of the education system to address adequately the needs of foster youth is yet one more factor that threatens the ability of these children to be successful. Education is the foundation for life-long success. Without a good education, youth in foster care are exposed to an almost insurmountable obstacle that will impact their lives forever.
Because public funding is so inadequate whether for education or child welfare, policy makers and public officials safeguard funding sources to the point of being blindsided as to the needs of those who ultimately are the beneficiaries of these funds. What is held in common is a genuine desire to serve the child. This intention must become the driving force in an examination of how both education and child welfare must work collaboratively to address the needs for these children and their families.
Grand jury investigations often lead to finger pointing and assignment of blame. As a provider of much-needed services to children who are so vulnerable, I hope that once the dust settles we can move beyond blaming to develop solutions that will leverage precious public resources to effectively serve the needs of youth in foster care. Each day, Hillsides deals with youth who have experienced trauma and become re-traumatized because the public school is inadequately prepared to serve their complex needs. As a result, residents are often suspended from school, victims of bullying, and occasionally exposed to unsafe conditions. All this undermines the educational agenda and makes it more difficult to address their therapeutic concerns.
The conclusions of the grand jury must serve as an opportunity to re-examine how we support the educational needs of youth in foster care and hopefully help develop a more comprehensive approach that joins the capacity of both the education and child welfare system to effectively serve children served through the foster care system.

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