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Report recommends help at school for foster children

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on Sun, 05/13/2012 - 08:31

Children removed from abusive homes and placed into long-term foster care do much worse in school than other children, requiring a host of legal and educational changes to improve their lives, a state-commissioned report concludes.

The report, released Thursday, painted a stark picture for foster children, who have higher dropout rates and lower test scores, are more likely to repeat grades and are far less likely to graduate from college — only 3 percent by age 25, compared with 28 percent of nonfostered children.

Addressing problems with education can have a significant impact on the lives of the 30,000 Texas children in foster care at any given time, said District Judge Patricia Macias, head of a 14-member committee of judges, education leaders and Child Protective Services officials that issued the report, "A Blueprint for Texas."

"Education is a very important factor. That's where kids spend their day, and that's where they learn to socialize," Macias said. "For a lot of kids, it's a safe haven. Because when they've been in an environment of abuse or neglect, going to school is a place where they can relax and be a kid."

Too often, Macias said, a lack of communication among courts, teachers and social workers impedes a school's ability to meet the needs of foster children, many of whom are dealing with the trauma of abuse. Foster children also tend to be moved to different foster homes, forcing them to attend new schools where curriculums differ, credits don't always transfer and the wait for school records can delay enrollment.

"Many teachers don't even know they have students in their class that are in foster care. It's important for teachers to know what's going on in the life of a child," Macias said.

Many of the report's recommendations focus on improved communication and fact gathering, particularly from judges, who are charged with protecting the well-being of children in state care.

Even so, the report found, no laws or policies require judges to monitor education. Judges, the report recommended, should review a child's school progress at almost every hearing, ensure that they are enrolled in a new school quickly and create court orders that identify the people who can make education decisions for each child to avoid confusion, particularly at new schools.

Something as simple as holding court hearings after school can cut down on absences, while creating an educational checklist for judges can help focus court attention on the issue, the report said.

Child Protective Services employees should identify foster children for schools, explain to a judge why a child has to change schools and prepare court reports on plans for college education beginning when a foster child turns 14, the report said.

The report also suggested adding CPS caseworkers to monitor a foster child's progress in college — noting, however, that the idea would require a large budget increase for the department.

The report also recommended that the state begin tracking how many times each foster child is forced to change schools while in state care and identify ways to keep children in the same school when they enter foster care.

The 98-page report was the result of 18 months of work by the committee, created in 2010 by the Texas Supreme Court to study educational problems in the foster care system. Members will meet annually to monitor state progress on their suggestions and report to the Supreme Court.

Some suggestions would require the Legislature's approval, such as adding CPS caseworkers or changing the law to allow court visits and therapy sessions to be counted as excused absences from school.

But many other recommendations could be adopted by courts, schools and caseworkers simply by changing rules or practices, Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman said.

"This is a critical first step, and I am confident that this is a great starting point," said Guzman, who leads the court's Commission for Children, Youth and Families.

By Chuck Lindell