These Are All Our Children

This week the latest national data on children in foster care and their educational outcomes was released. Though it is hopeful to see a little reduction in the absolute number of youth living in foster care, it was painful to read how poorly they fare compared to all children.  Almost two-thirds of the nearly 400,000 youth in care are of school age. With little exception, children who enter foster-care at school-age change schools multiple times and have above normal absences, suspensions, lost time in the class, and expulsions. Is it any wonder that they lag in reading or graduation?

A child placed in foster care has already faced more trauma and stress than most of the adults who care for them will ever know. Their fate of being born into troubled families or the wrong zip codes should compel us to wrap them with more and better than we provide other children. Yes, this is a rare example of where inequality makes sense. In fact, every child who enters foster care ought to be screened for adverse childhood experiences that may be distorting his/her emotional and cognitive brain functions. The systems serving these youth—the courts, their lawyers and human service agencies, and their medical homes must ensure that they not miss a day of school because the adults haven’t managed to communicate with each other, share records, or provide for the transportation to facilitate their entry into a new school. And, regardless of the need for special education, each child needs an individual advocate who is coordinating his/her educational career and outcomes. There is evidence that in Philadelphia up to 40% of the students in some schools are system-involved. This is an overwhelming burden for a district that is in financial crisis and operating with minimal non-teaching staff. These are all our children and public education in this country is a right. If that means we need to pay more for some children that is a burden which must be shared by society. After all, we can pay now or we can pay later. There is enough data correlating child welfare involvement with adult outcomes such as justice involvement, chronic poor health, substance abuse, intergenerational cycles of foster care involvement, and poverty.

The reality is that there are interventions that work. And the most uplifting data point in the report is that 84% of school-age foster care youth aspire to go to college. We know what it takes to transition a child from foster care to adulthood successfully and the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education report shares some of these promising practices. We live in an age where data, research and evidence is driving funding choices and should, therefore, be driving practice. As Frederick Douglass said, “It iseasier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” When will those who demand evidence of effectiveness and claim to be fiscally responsible put their money where their mouths are? I suggest we start with our most vulnerable children.

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