April 2018

Foster Success

By Ashley Kruger
Children enter the foster care system for reasons including neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence and/or parental drug use. Approximately 90 percent of foster children have experienced a traumatic event, with nearly half reporting exposure to four or more types of traumatic events. Such events lead to difficulty with decision making, problem solving, regulating emotions, planning and inhibiting their impulses. Trauma causes children to live in a constant state of alert, and they can be easily triggered. To an outsider, their reactions may appear to be extreme or unacceptable, but these students are trying to survive and don’t feel safe due to the instability in their lives. Rather than asking these students, “What is wrong with you?” we must shift to asking, “What happened to you?” Acknowledgment that these students’ responses are automatic and involuntary will lead to higher levels of empathy and compassion toward them. 

Obstacles to Education
Students in foster care have the worst educational outcomes of all subgroups. Causes include school placement instability, attendance difficulties, problems with transferring school records and partial credits, high discipline rates, lack of teacher preparedness for addressing the needs of foster youth and lack of collaboration between the school and the child welfare system. The current high school graduation rate for foster youth is 50 percent compared with 84 percent of the general population. Although 70 percent of foster youth want to attend college, according to a recent study, only 10 percent do so and only 3 percent graduate.

The most significant obstacle is school mobility. Every time a youth in foster care changes schools, they lose four to six months of educational progress. With the resulting gaps in their education, an estimated 30 percent to 50 percent of children in foster care receive special education services.

I had a second-grade student who could not write his name or read at all and was immediately referred for a special education assessment. With more research, I learned that this child had never been to school. He did not have a learning disability; he had never been given the tools necessary to perform at grade level. It is crucial that we learn as much as possible about these students to ensure they receive appropriate supports. 

Hope for Foster Youth
Several laws aim to improve educational outcomes for foster youth. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes provisions to promote school stability for youth in foster care and increase communication between schools and the child welfare systems. ESSA states that foster youth must remain in the same school if it is in the child’s best interest. Schools may use Title VI-E funds to provide transportation for these students if needed. ESSA also requires schools to immediately enroll students regardless of any missing documents and mandates that the previous school transfer records to the new school in a timely manner. Although not required under ESSA, many states require schools to provide partial credits, giving students in foster care an accurate number of credits for the amount of time they attended school. Learn more at https://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/foster-care/index.html. 

Even with these provisions, school counselors must work as social justice advocates for foster youth, ensuring they have all the necessary tools to succeed in school.

Know the laws: Research and understand state and federal laws protecting youth in foster care. Then educate others and advocate to ensure foster youth’s educational rights are being maintained. 

Ensure your district has policies and procedures in place when a new foster youth is enrolled: For example, when a foster youth is enrolled in your school or district, are you informed? If so, by whom? Is there a procedure in place for how you meet with this student, and what supports ensure educational success? 

Educate yourself and your staff: We school counselors are responsible for ensuring that our teachers, community, administrators and other stakeholders understand how to ensure these students receive what they need to be successful in school. Providing strategies for teachers to compassionately work with these students is crucial. 

Be consistent: Foster youth have experienced unimaginable trauma and untrustworthy adults and will often try to push others away to protect themselves from hurt. Show them that no matter what, you will be there to support them. 

Communicate on a regular basis with stakeholders: Make sure foster parents, group homes and social workers are involved in meetings and that any concerns are addressed immediately. 

Empower these students to have their own voice: Foster youth rarely have any say in the way their life unfolds, with decisions made for them by social workers, attorneys, judges, foster parents and educators. Allow the students you work with to speak up about their needs and teach them to advocate for themselves while being by their side to support them. 

Talk to your students about their future: While living in a state of uncertainty and turmoil, many foster youth have never had the opportunity to consider their future. Hold high expectations for these students, and make sure they know what postsecondary options are available for them.

Be aware of financial support for college: Fortunately, most states have a variety of scholarships to support foster youth attending college. Some states even have agreements with universities that will provide foster youth an automatic acceptance to the college if they meet the minimum requirements.
Familiarize yourself with university supports; only 3 percent of foster youth graduate from college. These students may lack the necessary social support systems to overcome challenges during these years. Many universities have programs on campus to support foster youth financially and emotionally to improve the likelihood of graduation. 

Use the local court-appointed special advocate (CASA) program in your county: CASAs are volunteers who are extensively trained to provide support for foster youth. They ensure that the foster child’s best interest is always the top priority. They provide mentorship and attend court to make recommendations about the child’s education, medical needs, placement options and therapeutic services. Most counties have a CASA program that can you and the foster child you are working with. 

With your help, foster youth in your school can be that much closer to academic, career and social/emotional success. 

Ashley Kruger is a school counselor with Murrieta Valley Unified School District in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at ashleykruger21@gmail.com. Contact the author for references to this article.