Children in Foster Care Win Better Opportunity
In April 2005, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) released a report detailing its successful partnership with a child welfare agency in New York City to provide educational expertise, advocacy, and legal representation to foster children. ?Project Achieve: A Model Project Providing Education Advocacy for Children in the Child Welfare System? reports that caseworkers are typically overburdened and unable to focus on educational issues. By combining its knowledge of the New York City school system with extensive advocacy and legal assistance, AFC was able to positively impact the lives of foster children and the adults responsible for them.
This report is a very worthwhile read for anyone interested in improved outcomes for foster children, and provides a model that can be replicated at child welfare agencies across the country.
The educational challenges faced by foster children are well documented. Foster children often fail to receive appropriate evaluations for special services, are transferred when their home situation changes, or are not provided with the transportation necessary to get to the appropriate programs. AFC found numerous examples of students who were misclassified and/or bounced between school environments so that they were years behind their age cohort.
AFC?s Project Achieve placed staff members within a child welfare organization to consult with caseworkers on individual cases, provide training, and develop methods for identifying and quickly remedying common educational problems. Some of the individual cases were handled quickly with technical assistance to a caseworker; others required more extensive, even legal, involvement. Because the power to make decisions about a student?s education is often left with birth parents even when a child is in the custody of foster parents, AFC?s efforts frequently involved extensive consultation with, and involvement of, birth parents, foster parents, and caseworkers. The experience of Project Achieve staff members was that this involvement often empowered parents, encouraging them to advocate for their children or foster children, and served to increase substantially the likelihood of family reunification or adoption. Birth parents especially viewed this involvement in education as a means of developing productive communication with the school system and finding appropriate placement for their children.
Project Achieve staff members were able to use their extensive understanding of the legal requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the numerous state and local laws governing provision of special services to ensure that students were not brushed aside by the system. Frequently Project Achieve staff were forced to petition for appropriate evaluation, placement, and transportation, frequently dealing with multiple branches of the New York City Department of Education.
One of the most effective methods of educational intervention provided by AFC was the early intervention system. Through extensive knowledge of the programs available to children ages three through five, Project Achieve staffers emphasized the screening of young children in foster care and the timely placement of those children in early intervention programs that would help to curb the detrimental effects of foster care on their schooling. This emphasis resulted in a much higher occurrence of early childhood educational placement, without the direct intervention of AFC staff.
Replicating the Project
AFC succeeded in finding stable and appropriate educational programs for the vast majority of the cases referred to them. Additionally, they received rave reviews from the caseworkers they assisted, who underlined the import of bringing in advocates with specific knowledge of educational rights and the school system. This was especially helpful in making sure the process moved faster, so that AFC?s expertise was able to minimize the disruptions to learning that are so frequent in foster care.
AFC?s Project Achieve was able to empower parents and foster parents, solve individual crises, and help caseworkers to be more effective. When questioned, all the caseworkers recommended establishing similar programs in other child welfare agencies.