One child, 60 homes by middle school. State focuses on school challenges for foster kids.

Deann Allen, the instructional supervisor for Clay County Schools, recently told Kentucky lawmakers about a middle school student enrolling in her district who said he was entering his 60th foster home.

In six weeks in Clay County, the student was moved to an additional four foster homes before being sent to another county, said Allen, asking legislators, “How can a child form those appropriate social skills moving so much?”

After hearing from school leaders that Kentucky foster children are struggling because some foster parents and social workers are not focusing on education and that the foster care system creates too many moves, members of the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Committee on Education said they would meet with education and foster care officials to work on improvements.

There is not a high level of public awareness and sometimes not hard data on the issues affecting Kentucky’s more than 9,600 foster children at school, said Eric Kennedy, a foster and adoptive parent and Director of Advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association who led an Aug. 21 presentation to legislators.

State foster care officials are not denying the problems, but say they have to balance safety of the child with educational concerns.

On Kentucky statewide tests in 2017-18, only 36.4 percent of public elementary children in foster care performed at the proficient /distinguished level in reading compared to 54.8 percent of non-foster care children.

In math, 28.9 percent were proficient/distinguished compared to 49 percent of children not in foster care, according to the Kentucky Department of Education’s School Report Card.

Nationally, the picture is similar, with seventh grade being the average reading level of 17- and 18- year olds in foster care, according to the 2018 National Factsheet on the Educational Outcomes of Children in Foster Care. Foster children are twice as likely to be absent as other children and 17- and 18-year-olds in foster care are twice as likely to have an out-of-school suspension.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, national research shows that children in foster care are at high risk of dropping out of school and are unlikely to attend or graduate from college.

Part of that is due to the transient nature of the system. Thirty-one to 75 percent of foster children nationwide changed schools when entering foster care. In Kentucky, that likelihood increases the older a child gets. Those ages 12-17 placed in out-of-home care are likely to be placed in a different region 79 percent of the time, according to state data. And the longer a child of any age stays in the state’s foster care system, the more likely they are to be shuffled from home to home.

Kentucky minors who have been in out-of-home care for at least 2 years, on average, experience more than 10 different placements, state data show.

Sometimes the problems lie with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services or with private child caring agencies who place a foster child for whom the Cabinet has legal responsibility when a state foster home is not available, school leaders said.

Jamie Weddington, Superintendent of Lewis County Schools, told legislators he was concerned because foster children enrolled in Lewis County were placed with private agency foster parents who had been terminated from a prior agency for putting a padlock on their refrigerator when foster children were drinking too much milk.

“We have to do better providing information so we can place these children in appropriate placements,” Weddington said. “It can’t be ‘let’s find the quickest home that we’ve got and place him there’.”

Education has often been as neglected as other aspects of a child’s life when they enter foster care, and it should be addressed as much as their other vital needs, but teachers and school leaders say it often is not, Kennedy said.

In response, state foster care officials acknowledge that putting children in foster care often causes more trauma than the issues that led to them being removed from their home.

“These things are not comfortable to talk about,” said Eric Clark, Commissioner of the Cabinet’s Department for Community Based Services. “These things need to be talked about in a real frank way. ..The facts show that at the end of the day these children (as adults) are overwhelmingly headed to homelessness. They aren’t equipped for the work force.”

Clark said that last fiscal year, Kentucky spent $475 million on children in foster care and only $18 million on preventing kids from being placed in foster care. Prevention works, he said: Ninety-six percent of those children receiving foster care prevention dollars stayed in their own home and school. Clark said the state is making radical transformations and trying to spend more money to keep children in their home and current school.

Clark said that while education should be a priority for foster children, so is safety in their biological home and sometimes they do have to be removed.

Elizabeth Caywood, deputy commissioner of Community Based Services in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said students are not going to be equipped to learn if they are not safe.

Kennedy said many foster parents and state social workers are “phenomenal” and do put education at the forefront in children’s lives.

Fayette County Public Schools Board chair Stephanie Spires said in an interview that she has been a foster parent for children attending several schools in her district and is aware of the need to improve communication between foster homes and schools.

Spires said her first foster children were 8- and 10-year-old boys who never showed her forms for school fundraisers, field trips, or PTA.

“They had been in five placements and told me no one ever cared enough to ask. Once I caught on, I had their teachers tip me off when forms were coming home so I could ask for them,” Spires said.

Foster children who are moved from school district to school district often suffer academic setbacks, officials told lawmakers, and more high quality foster homes would reduce that problem.

“It’s a situation that needs improvement and I’m excited that we are talking about it at the state level because these kids are traveling all across the state,” Spires said.

Lack of communication harmful

Allen said in her school district, where 11 percent of the 3,100 students enrolled are in foster homes, some foster parents often don’t have basic information about the children they are caring for, including where they last attended school. It is often unclear to the school who the child’s education decision-maker is.

And Allen said some foster children in her district, many placed by private agencies, are moved without regard for the school calendar or statewide student testing.

Eighteen foster children left the school district in mid-May just before school was out, Allen said.

A foster child who is removed from their biological home or transferred from a foster home can stay at their current school if it is within the same school district, said Spires. But that does not happen for many students who are sent to live in other school districts. She said her oldest foster child said she had been in 12 or more foster homes from kindergarten to 12th grade. Another former foster child who has aged out of state care and is homeless thinks she was in at least ten foster homes while she was in public schools, Spires said.

Allen said in Clay County, a foster child who is deaf was placed in a foster home “where no one signs” and the child had difficulty communicating.

Some foster parents don’t allow or support foster children participating in extracurricular activities and other services offered by schools, citing a lack of time and resources, school officials said. Allen saw an example of that in Clay County when foster parents said no to a boy in their home who wanted to play football, saying it was too far to drive.

Information about a student that teachers and school leaders would typically receive from a parent is sometimes not received at all in the case of a foster child or not as quickly. Sometimes, neither the foster parent nor the social worker has needed information, school officials said.

Hester Love-Burchett of Lexington adopted her foster children and is a mentor to other foster parents. In the last few weeks, she said, she talked to foster parents who could not enroll a foster child in a Kentucky public pre-school because the school required permission of the biological parents and getting that permission was not possible.

She said that in another situation, foster parents she mentored and the social worker they worked with had not been given information on whether a child had ever been in day care.

Allen said schools don’t often have past histories or medical diagnoses of foster children. Spires said that when foster parents go to school to enroll children, often “you don’t know what classes they were taking, what grade level they’re on.”

That can cause delays in kids getting the services they need at school and teachers and school staff are left to track down information, education officials told lawmakers.

Kentucky public schools offer an unprecedented array of services including food, clothing, and even medical care. However, for students in foster care, schools too often face obstacles in providing that support, including mental health therapy and counseling, when it could be a vital benefit, education officials said.

Spires said there were few foster homes in Lexington other than hers that fit the needs of her oldest foster child who moved into Spires’ home in her high school senior year. Had the child been required to move to a home in another school district, she would have lost credits toward graduation and lost ground in a nursing program she was enrolled in, Spires said.

Weddington said one former foster child in his district is in college because school staff took an interest in him and his foster parents supported his efforts at school. But he said not all high school children in foster care receive that level of care.

Meanwhile, foster children are too often pulled out of the classroom for various meetings, appointments, and discussions linked to their status as a foster child, sometimes including visits from social workers or guardians ad litem, education officials said.

“Any sort of disruption of classroom time is a big concern,” said Kennedy.

But Clark, from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, countered that school is a safe, neutral place for social workers to meet with children.

What could help?

School officials asked state legislators to make some improvements or policy changes, including:

Require the child’s social worker to accompany the child and foster parent when enrolling at a new school because the social worker has as much information about the child as anyone.

When a child is transferring to a new school district because they are in foster care, the new school district should be able to easily access information about the child through social services and online school records.

Provide additional funding to school districts to support foster children and invest money in opening new foster homes in every community, and provide training and support to foster parents that is focused on education.

Require private foster care agencies to inform one another and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services when they close one of their foster homes for any reason.

“We will be discussing these concerns and ideas with legislators ahead of, and during, the next legislative session,” in 2020, Kennedy told the Herald-Leader. “These are long-term, complex issues which we realize will need long-term work to resolve.”

Herald-Leader staff writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this article.