Going to school just seems like a run of the mill normal expectation for children. A child turns 5 and he starts his formal schooling experience. While most children may probably say they would rather not go to school, they appear to succeed in interacting with teachers, learning new lessons, as well as being exposed to social experiences in developing friendships with other children. But for children in foster care placement, school can be a stressful and unwelcome part of their lives. The challenges they face are plentiful, from needing to adjust to new school environments, to developmental and learning disabilities, to being faced with other children who live in permanent stable homes with their own loving parents.
School brings frustration, stress, trauma, fear, humiliation, and uncertainty for many children in foster care homes. These feelings can stem from experiences such as bullying from other children for wearing the same clothes, being unkept, and possibly the knowledge that their parents are failing at parenting them due to drug abuse or other circumstances.
An article by Dr. John De Garmo of the Foster Care Institute, entitled “The Classroom: A Place of Failure for Children in Foster Care” states,
For that foster child who has been taken from his family, from his home, from his friends, and all he knows, and suddenly placed into a strange home late one evening, only to be forced to attend a strange school the following day, it is incredibly traumatic.
Children in foster care continue to go through change in all their environments leaving all that is familiar behind them. There is a general expectation of adults to accept these changes quickly; however, due to lack of knowledge of their traumatic experiences, when these children demonstrate difficulties they tend quickly be labeled. Labels such as troublemakers, difficult to handle, or oppositional lead to increased negative attention in the school setting. Children who are labeled tend to abhor their school experience even more.
Changes in a school setting create enormous problems for children in foster care homes. When a child moves to a new foster home, this typically means a change in school placement as well. So, if a child has 3 foster home changes in a year that means they have been enrolled in and attended 3 different educational settings. In an article in The Atlantic entitled “Every Time Foster Kids Move, They Lose Months of Academic Progress“, the author found that
Children are estimated to lose four to six months of academic progress per move, which puts most foster care children years behind their peers. Falling behind isn’t the only problem with frequent school moves: School transfers also decrease the chances a foster care student will ever graduate from high school.
Any transfer in a school setting for a child can be traumatic, but the difference for children in foster care is the astronomical number of times it occurs. I have attempted to find data on the average number of foster home disruptions a child may encounter; however, in checking statistics at Child Welfare League of America, Administration for Children and Families, and Child Welfare Information Gateway there appears to be no data available. So to offer perspective from my 20 years of working with children in foster care homes, I have seen anywhere from 5 movements to the highest being 27. Unfortunately, I have never worked with a child who has had one foster care home placement which would mean one continuous home, one continuous parent, and one continuous school.
In looking for what could be the solution for foster care children, I came across an article recently posted on Philly.com entitled “Private High School Focuses on Philly Kids in Foster Care“. C.B. Community Schools, a private high school in Philadelphia, enrolls only children aged 16-20 who are in foster care homes across the city. The school’s promise to the children is simple
“There is one place-no matter where you move”– Roberta Trombetta, Founder
One school, no matter where you live, no matter how many times you move foster homes. How simple but profound of an idea! The meaningfulness to a child who may have been enrolled in 5 schools while involved in the child welfare system; the idea that they can remain in one school is unfathomed. This particular school is in their second year of operation and currently has 62 enrolled students. The attendance rate of children is over 80% compared to the national rate of 60%. The curriculum is broken down into smaller units allowing children to work until they reach 80% competency at their own pace. In addition to teachers, the school employs a full time social worker, school nurse, and guidance counselor. Another unique aspect of the school is its funding– it’s all paid by third parties funders and donations to the school, which means tuition is FREE for all students! Last year, 10 of 11 potential students graduated from the high school program.
Bottom line, foster care placements affect children, disruptions in foster care placements affect children, and changes in school settings affect children negatively. Reform of the child welfare system needs to be reflective and acknowledge the negative effects of foster care placement on children and taken on by social workers and other professionals. It is paramount so that the system in place to protect children does what it sets out to do.