Educating Schools on Behalf of Children in Care

Jim Timbers
July 26, 2001

Reading 2.5, Math 3.0, Writing 2.0. These are grade equivalency scores of a 17-year-old foster child. The scores indicate she is performing at the second to third grade level in basic academic skills. But her school has assured her that if she attends most of her classes she will receive a high school diploma next year.

This child has been in 'the system' for over eight years, and she will emancipate next year with little hope for success. Her case is not unique. There are many children in foster care facing similar problems.

Law vs Reality

Federal law requires that public schools provide all children with a free and appropriate public education in the least-restrictive environment. School districts have a responsibility to determine the academic needs of every child. For children with physical, emotional, behavioral or learning disabilities school districts have a responsibility to identify those needs and develop a plan to meet them—whenever possible within a regular classroom setting.

Federal and local laws and regulations set up timetables and requirements for school systems to develop IEPs (Individual Education Programs) for such students. The process of creating and then monitoring an IEP can be daunting for the adults involved, especially the non-educators such as parents, foster parents or guardians. Yet whoever holds the educational rights of a child has many legal rights and responsibilities. For many foster children, no one seems fully prepared to exercise those rights on the child's behalf.

For example, when the 17-year-old girl I described above arrived at her current high school two years ago, the school district was unable to locate any of her school records. It wasn't until last year, when her current foster mother complained, that anyone took notice of her academic problems. A meeting was held, and the school appointed an education surrogate. The child was then assessed by the school. She was found to be learning disabled in reading, writing, and math and eligible for special education and an IEP. Unfortunately, when an IEP was finally developed, the only goals in it were for her to pass drivers' education and to improve in reading.

This education plan was developed solely by the child's special education teacher. The child's school-appointed education surrogate did not even attend the IEP meeting. He just signed the completed paperwork. So far, the student has made little if any progress.

For foster children, serious academic problems are not uncommon. Some are unable to read and write or compute simple mathematical equations. Others have serious behavioral issues which hinder their progress. Many children just ?fall through the cracks,' graduating—and being emancipated from foster care—without basic academic or social skills. Frequent changes of school, which accompany frequent changes of placement, only make matters worse.

As an education advocate, I work with foster children who have social workers, attorneys, CASAs (court-appointed special advocates), teachers, psychologists, foster parents or group home managers, and judges who periodically review their cases. All of these professionals work with these children, sometimes for years, but have been unable to foster academic success or effectively prepare them for independent living.

Often, education takes a back seat to family, mental health and legal issues. I have read numerous reports by social workers that do not even mention education. I have attended treatment team and staff meetings that avoid even discussing school. The course of a foster child's education is usually left up to the school district—often with unfortunate results. I have brought dire cases to the attention of a child's attorney or social worker and have received responses such as "Education is not my area of expertise," "It's too late to do anything now," or "I don't know anything about IEPs or special education."

The Importance of Assessment

Early assessment and placement in special education are the keys to helping foster children with special needs. Any person acting as a parent of a child, any teacher, social worker, advocate or other related individual can request an assessment by the school. However, the person who holds the child's education rights must agree to the assessment.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine who holds those education rights. If a parent's rights have not been terminated by the court, the school usually cannot assess or place a child in special education without permission. However, the best interest of the child is always considered, and a school district can request a due process hearing in order to assess and place a child in special education even without parental consent, though in practice this rarely happens. If a parent does not respond to requests made by the school or cannot be located, the school district can also appoint an education surrogate.

The dilemma faced by child advocates and foster parents is whether to have the school appoint an education surrogate or to fill that role themselves. Some education surrogates appointed by the district are partial to the district's position. Often they approve poorly written IEPs, do not monitor the child's progress, and know very little about the child. Alternately, many child advocates and foster parents lack the skills and confidence to take on a daunting bureaucracy and appropriately advocate on education issues for the children they represent.

Schools sometimes take advantage of this lack of knowledge. There are many reasons: budget concerns; a lack of specialists such as speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and clinical social workers; a shortage of special education teachers; the scope and expense of needed services; and the number of children already in special education. Some teachers actually fear retaliation by their school administrator or district if they refer too many children for special education.

Often schools need to be encouraged to assess and place a child in special education. For many children, parents serve as the "squeaky wheel" to which a school administrator eventually responds. But who plays that role for foster children? New foster parents, child advocates, and even attorneys have told me that dealing with school-related issues can be intimidating and confusing. Muddling through education jargon and canned responses from school personnel can be exasperating and overwhelming.

A Call for Cooperation

There is a simple solution to at least one part of the problem—the need for early assessment and identification of special needs. Considering the typical foster child's history, why shouldn't school districts take the initiative and seek permission to assess every foster child for possible placement in special education? Not that all foster children would need an IEP—but such a procedure would help ensure that those who need special education services would receive them. As a former teacher, I know that a few work samples, combined with the child's performance in the classroom, can be enough to warrant a full assessment.

Everyone involved in a foster child's life needs to work collaboratively with the child's school and become active participants in the child's education and the decision-making process. Acquiring a basic knowledge of special education law, and reading the copy of parent/children's rights that each district is required to give to parents, can go a long way. (Teachers need to read these too.) Encouraging the school district to effectively utilize technology to locate educational records and IEPs, creating an education "passport" for each foster child, and motivating a school to take action on behalf of a foster child with a suspected disability are small but necessary steps in solving the chronic problem of underachievement of foster children.

Foster children receive a wide array of social services. However, there is little hope of success for any child who does not receive a quality education. It is important that all individuals working with foster children address their academic needs, and advocate effectively in their best interest in all areas—especially education.

Online Resources

Jim Timbers advocates for foster children and parents of special education children in Orange County, California. He has over ten years of teaching experience in both regular and special education. Currently, Timbers offers education consulting and advocacy through his company, IEP Consulting Services, and works as a case supervisor at CASA in Orange County where he trains and supervises child advocates. Jim is also an education surrogate, appointed by the Superior Court of Orange County, for a number of children. You can contact him at

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