New School, New Problems: Foster Children Struggle in U.S. Schools
This article first appeared in January 2000.
First a foster child lands in a strange family; then gets shuffled into a classroom filled with more strangers. Math assignments are different. Books carry titles the child has never seen before. Even the location of the toilet stalls creates a puzzle. Yet this is school for thousands of school-age children who become wards of the state.
School encompasses an entire world for children; it's what they do for over six hours a day. Imagine, then, how they feel trying to maneuver through a vast, unfamiliar educational universeï¿½at the same time coping with a new home, new adult authorities, new rules.
Foster children drop out from school at twice the rate of other children, a 1997 study shows. Researchers generally attribute this greater risk to repeated transfers from one foster home to the next, where valuable credits, school records and social networks are lost and curriculums and standards differ.
Many of these children arrive with impairments due to prenatal drug and alcohol exposure. Further, foster children are estimated to lose six months of emotional development with each new placement. So a 14-year-old with four lifetime placements is closer in age emotionally to a 12-year-oldï¿½a clear challenge in any classroom.
How do these children cope? And how can teachers, foster parents and other authorities better guide these most vulnerable children?
Foster Parent Survey Reveals Frustration with Schools
One foster father says that, on understanding the needs of children in foster care, he would rate his local schools as excellent. Yet virtually no other foster parent surveyed recently by the Casey Family Program concurs. Of two dozen foster parent leaders nationwide, nearly all give their schools a "poor" rating for educating foster children, or at best, a not very enthusiastic "fair."
Ralph Willenbring of Minnesota is the lone state affiliate president with the National Foster Parent Association who declares definitively that "I have no problems with the schools."
Then again, few school officials would take on Willenbring, who's made a point of memorizing state and federal education rules line-for-line. "People have to know what their rights are," he says. "If a school won't cooperate with me, I just ask, 'are you getting federal funding for special needs kids?' Then I say, 'put your boxing gloves away and let's work together.'"
Laws enacted over the past quarter-century can protect children with learning, developmental, emotional and physical disabilities, a category covering many children in foster care. But many foster parents who try to implement those protections expressed frustration and a sense of war-weariness:
"Unless you absolutely pitch a fit, you don't get what you need," complains Phyllis Hurley of Kentucky.
"I had to get nasty," says the soft-spoken Hurley. That was after the school tried suspending her foster daughter, a second grader, after she pulled another child's hair. "I told the school, 'you're not protecting those other children from my child.'" The next day the school brought in an aide to work with the troubled girl. Judy Bissell from Iowa complains that she just spent the entire fall fighting with her local school. One of her foster kids has a form of autism; the other suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Every service required for these children became a challenge, including routine testing and getting the one child placed in an autistic classroom.
"These are bright kids who will one day need to work," says Bissell of her charges. These are all children who can't afford to not be educated.
IDEA: Congress Offers Some Solutions
The crucial step in obtaining resources from the school system is getting the child placed under an Individual Education Plan, or an IEP, which provides a blueprint for how a particular student's education needs must be met. Prior to the implementation of the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by Congress, approximately 1 million children with disabilities were shut out of public education. The law established these individual plans to give all children access to schools, despite developmental delays or disabilities.
The IDEA legislation was reauthorized and amended in 1997, with final regulations published by the U.S. Department of Education this year. The new rules re-establish the IEP as the major tool in a student's involvement and progress in the general curriculum. IEP teams usually consist of parents (or a foster or surrogate parent), administrators, the teacher and sometimes the student and outside experts. The legislation says that each eligible child must have a plan that lists program goals and the kinds of services and supports the child will need to reach those goals.
This legislation gives Willenbring and other foster parents the ammunition to get what's required for their charges. With firm education plans inscribed in the school bureaucracy, and a team in place, Willenbring can demand that every child in his home graduate high school. He's currently pushing through a group of five boys, all age 17; all juvenile offenders with records that include substance abuse and sale, felony theft and sexual assault. Every Friday the boys bring home progress reports-part of the IEP-from the school. Unless the reports show improvement, all privileges are suspended for the weekend and they're stuck inside mopping the floors.
IDEA forces school administrators to share responsibility for these troubled children, says Willenbring. The new rules specifically clarify that a child with an education plan may not be suspended or expelled for longer than 10 days without receiving the necessary services to enable the child to advance toward the education goals established by the IEP.
Without those rules, Willenbring says, schools will readily suspend a problem child, which is exactly what the child wants. "Suspension really punishes the foster parent," he says. Consequently, Willenbring has developed his own labor program: A child suspended from school gets sent into the back yard to move rocks, like Sisyphus, from one side of the property to the other-and back again.
Problems That Evade Legislative Cure
Getting their foster charges evaluated and placed within an Individual Education Plan is a tough haul, parents say. Even among the brightest children in the child welfare system, many are emotionally troubled and require the kinds of services that can only be obtained once the youth is deemed disabled. But not all evaluators consider a child's unstable homelife and placement history as a qualifying disablement; consequently, many unsettled foster kids remain in the regular curriculum.
Parents say teachers are reluctant to change their methods of teaching to reach these children and many fall behind. "I've seen kids who had to cram a years' worth of English and history into one semester," says foster parent Michael McSurdy of Tennessee. Because of the lack of standardized curriculums, a child removed from one foster home and placed into another can find themselves academically months behind other kids in the class.
Even children with documented disabilities get overlooked if the specific problem is unfamiliar to school administrators, many say. Karl Howell explains that the special education teachers in Oregon don't understand Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. They put these children in brightly colored rooms and expect them to remain on task, despite their hyper-awareness to any stimulation.
Louise Scott in Petersburg, Virginia complains, too, that children born of alcoholic mothers face avoidable learning hurdles. "My young man had environmental issues and the teacher just wouldn't cooperate. I said that he should take the spelling test in the library, not the crowded classroom. But teachers aren't susceptible to new ideas," she says.
"Some teachers go the extra mile," offers Suzanne Stevens of Florida. "But most just see these kids as transitory." By the time a child reaches the age of 16, and no teacher has taken the time to coax them along, they just drop out, she adds.
Out of the 59 children who stayed under Stevens' care, only one graduated high school.
An overloaded teacher with 35 children in a classroom has "absolutely no flexibility at all" to give extra encouragement or attention to a foster child, according to June Million, spokesperson with the National Association of Elementary School Principals, a group with 28,000 members.
Susan Talley, research associate with the National Institute for the Education of At-Risk Children, agrees. "We're asking a lot of teachers these days. Getting extra services into the classroom is ideal. But doing it can be a nightmare," she says.
Further, although many foster children have substance abusing parents, the research on coping with children with problems like fetal alcohol syndrome is very young, Talley adds. Schools aren't assisting these children because they don't really know how to at this point, she says.
Talley does agree with many foster parents who say that more children should be under the Individual Education Plans. Disadvantaged children " should all be in education plans because they need the extra resources," she says. But, she warns, those plans can sometimes label a child for life, with teachers viewing them in a negative light.
That becomes a dilemma: giving these children additional services and singling them out, or keeping them more anonymous in a system that may fail them?
Ohio Law Singles Out Foster Children
Gary Whitaker, education liaison with a private nonprofit organization in Ohio, Specialized Alternatives for Families & Youth of America, is concerned about a new statewide rule that singles out foster children. A 1998 amendment to the Ohio Revised Code orders any "unruly or delinquent child in a foster home in a county other than the county in which the child resided at the time of being removed from the home" referred to the juvenile court. Basically, this law gives the court the power to remove a problem child from the county for unspecified cause.
Legal proceedings have been initiated to overturn this legislation, according to Whitaker. So far, he reports, one county in Ohio has said the law is unconstitutional.
Delay tactics in admitting these children to the schools occur with rigid records transfer rules. Kids are sometimes waiting two weeks to be enrolled in a new school because certain documents haven't been received. In some cases, if a child comes from a one-teacher facility in a residential program, there are no documents to transfer.
Whitaker says that he gets phone calls constantly from families who can't collect the right records for school enrollment. It's not unusual, he says, to send a lawyer to ensure the child gets inside the public school.
Foster parents also bemoan rules in many local districts that won't permit them to be a team member in the implementation of their foster child's educational plan. Instead, the school appoints a surrogate parent who is less likely to advocate and make waves.
Others surveyed indicate that, even if they are part of the child's education team, their views aren't taken seriously. Judy Bissell of Iowa writes, "I feel that they have already made up the agenda of what they want and don't listen real well."
"It's Just a Foster Child"
Kit Hanson of Utah is repeatedly aghast by what's said directly in front of the children. "I've had principals say 'it's just a foster kid.'"
Nearly all of the foster parents surveyed or interviewed for this article agreed that the schools treat their foster charges with less respect and concern than other children in the school.
School districts are very territorial, comments Michael McSurdy. "And foster children are a transplanted problem."
"There's no sensitivity training for teachers and school administrators," echoes Karl Howell, so they're slow to recognize the needs of children in care.
Racial issues also play into the equation. Howell describes how he brought the first black child into his school district, an area of 2,700 people near the Oregon coast. "We perceived some racial bias," he says, but "adjusted to it."
Many foster parents describe how their new charges don't get readily accepted by their peers. Louise Scott, a foster child herself in Virginia over 30 years ago, says that the issues are very different now. "Back then everyone was poor," she comments. Few of the kids in the post-war fifties subscribed to costly fashion rules or elaborate outings that may exclude children in care.
The modern school setting creates other uncomfortable moments for children removed from their birth families. It's not unusual for elementary-age kids to receive an assignment that requires them to bring in baby pictures, write autobiographies or sketch their parents. More awkwardness develops when the class takes a field trip and requires signed liability forms for each student. A foster parent doesn't have the authority to sign, though many do just to save the child the embarrassment of being left behind.
What Might Be Done
Everyone must be taught to stretch out a long-waited hand to the frightened children wandering through America's schools, say nearly all state affiliate presidents of the National Foster Parent Association.
Foster parents says teachers and foster parents both require more understanding of students without permanent families. They need "to become better trained in identifying children with different educational needs than the classic child. A child in foster care is rarely able to work and concentrate on class work when their lives are in turmoil," writes Elaine Olson from the Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents.
Other foster parents report that, even if the training is offered for teachers and other adults who work with foster children, , few participants actually show for the workshops. Sandra Boelter of San Diego says that there's plenty of money for training in California. But when the Parent Teacher Association conducts special foster care workshops, no one comes, she says. "I've met people at the [state] Department of Education who don't even know what a foster child is," she adds.
"The school system needs training more than foster parents," agrees Michael McSurdy, a trainer with the University of Tennessee and a foster parent. Though he's tried to develop appropriate training for Tennessee's schools, there are no takers.
Marvin Ferneau Jr. with the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association reports that he's gone into the local junior high school and conducted sessions on being a foster child. "The idea of multiple placements really surprised the kids," he says. Still, they listened to him.
When a nonprofit advocacy group came into the Alabama schools to instruct foster parents on new special education rules, Harriet Parr attended with enthusiasm. "The laws change so fast. We need to know our rights," Parr explains.
Parr is anxious to relay a success story: An 8-year old with three previous placements came to her home one summer. The child, still in first grade, suffered with Attention Deficit Disorder and certain physical problems that qualified him for an Individual Education Plan. With the right teacher and the right medicine, Parr could push the school to have him tested out of first grade by November. The following September, at age 9, he started third grade with other children his age. Now he's in fifth grade and doing fine with the extra help, she reports.
"Because someone spoke up for him," she adds, "he'll probably graduate high school."
Susan Kellam has an extensive 25-year career in journalism and social policy, including editorial positions at Rolling Stone magazine and Congressional Quarterly and as communications director at the American Public Welfare Association. She is currently a free-lance writer.