“The truth is that schools and school districts have not historically been good at educating foster youth,” said Jesse Hahnel, founder and director of FosterEd, a project of the National Center for Youth Law. Most school districts don’t have the expertise to meet the population’s unique needs, he said.
Fifteen years ago, 108,068 California children were living in foster homes. Today, there are 55,218 children in foster care, a decline of nearly 50 percent, according to recently released figures from kidsdata.org, a project of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health that tracks trends in the well-being of California children.
Nationwide, during the same 15-year period, the number of children in foster care decreased by more than 25 percent, from 544,303 to 394,833. The decline represents a widespread shift in public policy driven, in part, by research indicating that children and teens removed from their families fare worse in school and in life than other disadvantaged kids.
“They remove (children from their homes) only if there is no other choice,” said Michelle Lustig, coordinator for foster youth and homeless education in the San Diego County Office of Education. Since 2005, when she started her job, Lustig said the number of foster youth in the county has fallen from about 9,800 to below 4,000.
Children placed in foster care today are in dire circumstances, she said. “I think that we are seeing a higher-need, more traumatized population of kids entering care,” Lustig said.
The San Diego County Office of Education has developed one of the state’s model foster youth programs, which works collaboratively with child welfare officers, juvenile court and foster parents to ensure that each foster child gets the appropriate services and help.
Such cooperation could soon be possible on a larger scale. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research and the Institute for Evidence-Based Change for the first time looked at academic achievement of K-12 and state college students who had been in the child welfare system at some time between grades 9 and 11. Without identifying students by name, researchers compared students in foster care with those not in foster care but who shared identical characteristics, such as grade, disability, socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity.
The results, released in a March report titled At Greater Risk, showed that students in foster care were at greater risk for failing in school, even compared to a similar cohort.
50 percent of 11th grade foster youth scored “far below basic” and “below basic,” the two lowest levels, on the English-language arts section of the California Standards Test (CST), compared with 24 percent of other 11th grade students.
Only 19 percent of foster youth scored in the top two levels – advanced and proficient – on the test, whereas 48 percent of their classmates did so.
More than half (52 percent) of foster youth attended schools that ranked in the bottom 30 percent in the state, compared with 40 percent of the general population attending those campuses.
The report took the numbers a step further, comparing students in foster care with students similar in all other ways – income level, grade, gender, school year, race and ethnicity and English learner status – and found that, even among their similar peers, students in foster care were less likely to succeed in school.
45 percent of foster youth completed high school, compared with 53 percent of other disadvantaged students.
43 percent of foster youth and 46 percent of similar students enrolled in community college.
Of those who enrolled, 41 percent of foster youth and 48 percent of the other disadvantaged students enrolled for a second year of community college.
Based, in part, on these outcomes for children, advocates began reexamining the system.
“When the number was up to 100,000 youth that were in the system, there was really a call to action,” said Diana Boyer, senior policy analyst at the County Welfare Directors Association of California. “That’s when we started seeing stakeholders coming together.”
A new state strategy for identifying youth who needed to be placed in care, called “differential response,” grew out of those conversations. Differential response gives child welfare officials flexibility to keep children in their homes when they’re not in danger and to coordinate community resources to work with families to improve their behavior and provide other support they might need, such as food stamps or mental health care.
As with any policy shift, there are degrees of agreement.
“I think that a lot of people get excited about a reduction in numbers as if it’s telling something about the well-being of children and I think that that’s really dangerous,” said Daniel Heimpel, founder and executive director of the advocacy group Fostering Media Connections.“I don’t think reduction per se is a measure of improvement.”
Heimpel said the goal has to be for “safe reduction,” ensuring that the state, local government and advocacy groups are providing ongoing services and support for the children, families and communities where they live.
What’s more, Heimpel said, there are no studies yet showing whether children diverted out of foster care and kept at home do better in the long run, even with additional services.
Holding schools accountable
Heimpel’s perspective falls into one of the three camps that UC Berkeley Social Welfare Professor Jill Duerr Berrick found have emerged following the policy change. Experts in this group generally believe that reducing foster care placements is the right goal, but caution that there’s no way to measure whether children are safer now or were safer under the old system.
“It’s a question that no one yet knows the answer to,” said Duerr Berrrick, who is also co-director Berkeley’s Center for Child and Youth Policy.
Of the other two camps, one supports the reduction in foster care placement and would argue, said Duerr Berrick, that in the past, the threshold was too low for removing children from their homes. The third group wants to reduce official placements in group homes and with foster parents who are strangers, and increase private arrangements with relatives to care for children who can’t remain in their homes.
Researchers say it’s unlikely that the foster care rate will drop below its current level of a little more than 55,000. Of those foster youth, about 42,000 are school age. Under the new state budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, schools will have to step up efforts to help these students succeed.
The budget makes California the first state to hold schools, districts and county offices of education accountable for the academic success of foster youth. As EdSource Today recently reported, the new budget added foster youth as a separate subgroup in calculating a school’s Academic Performance Index, the state’s ranking of schools based on test scores and other measures. The budget also includes foster youth as one of three categories of students receiving supplemental funding in Brown’s overhaul of school financing, known as the Local Control Funding Formula (the other two are English learners and low-income students).
“This budget represents a significant victory for foster youth,” Hahnel said, but added some words of caution. The law still requires schools to figure out how to make education work for foster youth.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” he said, “but at least now the foundation is laid so districts have an incentive.”