Fostering Achievement

Fostering Achievement

Fostering achievement

Schools serve a growing number of foster kids

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2015
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer 

“Seamless” is a term you sometimes hear in education to describe a smooth transition between grade levels or from high school to postsecondary classes.

In the Clay County district, it also covers a new program this year aimed at making it easier for foster children of middle and high school age to enter its schools. The locally funded program is a transition unit devised of necessity as district officials try to serve an increasing influx of foster kids, some of them arriving with incomplete education records.

“We are putting them in this transition unit, not as a discipline issue, but as a place where we can make sure we get them off on the right foot,” explained Dr. Deann Stivers Allen, the district’s instructional supervisor. “The students feel they’re being welcomed into the system instead of plopping them into class and (later) realizing, oh, my, they need special education services, they need this or that, and then having to redo their whole schedule.”

The students stay in the unit until the district receives their records, which could take as little as two days or as much as a couple of weeks, Allen said. At that point, their needs can be determined and they can assume a normal schedule.

Eastern Kentucky appears to be especially affected by an increase in the number of foster children in Kentucky. Thirteen counties had more than double the state rate of children placed in out-of-home care in 2011–2013, and seven of those were in the eastern part of the state, according to the 2014 Kids Count data book from Kentucky Youth Advocates (see chart above). 

Data from the state Department for Community Based Services shows a 10.4 percent increase in the number of children in foster care since October 2009 (see chart at left), though numbers fluctuate during any given year. Denise Weider, foster care policy analyst for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the same trend is seen nationally.

Teresa James, the department’s commissioner, told a state panel recently that the number of children removed from homes in June was “pretty close to an all-time high.”

Possible causes
Allen said she has seen an uptick in her district with the implementation of the state’s new juvenile justice reforms. But Weider said there is not enough data to make a connection.

“We are cautious to draw any conclusions. That law is really not fully implemented in a way that we would be able to have enough information to make that determination, that that was the cause,” she said.

Schooldistrictscanhelp.aspxThe risk factors identified by Child Protective Services caseworkers offer some possible explanations for the increase: income issues, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental and physical health issues. “And approximately three-fourths of our families have had two or more of these risk factors,” Weider said (see chart at right).

Income is the greatest risk factor, Weider said, pointing to the 2014 America’s Health Rankings report showing that the percentage of children living in poverty in Kentucky in the last two years rose from 23.3 percent to 31.8 percent. The state is ranked 50th nationally for the number of children living in poverty, she said.

Balancing needs
Clay County’s Allen said she is concerned because many of the foster children in her district are from more urban areas and are having a hard time adjusting because of that. “You take a child who has been raised in an urban environment and you plop them down in the middle of rural eastern Kentucky, not only are you dealing with the social issues of just getting used to school, there’s a cultural issue, too,” she said.

Diane Underwood, DCBS adoption services manager, acknowledged those concerns. “Sometimes they’re the only minority children in the area, or close to it,” she added.

DCBS tries to place children in their home community, where they can stay in the school they have been attending. That isn’t always possible, Underwood said, since a child’s specific needs, such as medical or behavioral, also must be factored in. The department’s ultimate goal is to reunite the child with his or her family if possible.

Weider said the state is making an effort to shift children from group homes to individual foster homes, adding, “We are always trying to move children into the least restrictive environment.”

Additional needs
Cases of sketchy education records are not the only issues related to the transient nature of child placement. That transience also creates other difficulties, said Ashland Independent Schools Special Education Director Lisa Henson.

“The better you know a child and are able to form those connections and bonds with the family, the better you’re able to serve the child,” she said. “And a lot of times children who are more transient, they’re not anywhere long enough for you to get a good evaluation, get good data on their progress. So instead of putting down those educational roots, if you will, every place you go, you’ve got to try to grow those roots. And that’s hard.”

In addition to transition issues related to relocation, many foster children are classified as special needs students, and may also require counseling and similar services, said Jennifer Simmons Whitt, pupil personnel and special education director for Elliott County Schools. The district works with local mental health services providers, including one with a counselor that goes into their schools. Many times abuse is at the root of their removal from home, she noted.

“And this has resulted in an emotional problem that then results in a behavioral problem, and anger and violence that we then see in the classroom, that they’re taking it out on other children,” Whitt said. “Just occasionally you’ll see the opposite, where they’re very withdrawn.”

Henson, who said her district has not seen a big increase in the number of foster children, said the system is fortunate because the school board has funded not only social worker positions at the middle and high school, but also a district behavioral specialist. They work together, along with a guidance counselor.

“It has been an invaluable team in putting together plans to support children,” she said. “But those things take time.”

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