Arizona Child Advocates Want Better Education for Foster Kids

Published December 1, 2005

Children in foster care often move from one place to another several times a year, changing schools with each move. Such disruption in education is detrimental to a child’s learning and social development. Now, child advocates in Arizona are working to keep kids in the same classroom even when they are moved to a new home.

The nation’s 540,000 foster children are one of the most at-risk groups in the education system, according to studies conducted by several child welfare organizations over the past decade. One of these, Assessing the Long-Term Effects of Foster Care: A Research Synthesis, released in 1996 by the Child Welfare League of America, reports that half of all foster children will never graduate from high school.

According to an October 7 Arizona Republic article, 75 percent of that state’s 10,000 school-age foster children are working below grade level, and 83 percent will be held back a year.

Karin Kline, speaking for Arizona’s Division of Children, Youth, and Families, said the state’s foster care system recognizes instability in education is a problem to be addressed.

Finding Stability

“If you think about it, a child being removed from their home is very traumatic. It may be abusive, it may not be healthy for them, and in most cases children are removed because of neglect–but it is all that they know,” Kline said. “So when we move them to foster homes not in their own neighborhoods, then we also take away their friends, their family, their teachers, and this is a national issue.”

When they are moved from school to school, children don’t have time to adjust and catch up to their peers, a problem that can follow them into adulthood, Kline said. That’s why child welfare officials in Arizona are eager to find solutions.

“We have one program that has been very successful, called Family to Family,” she said. “One component is actually knocking on doors in neighborhoods and saying, ‘We’ve got a kid that came from your neighborhood. Are you willing to provide a home?'”

Finding a neighborhood home ensures children do not have to move to a different school away from friends and familiarity, and they often manage to stay on track in their studies despite the disruption in their home life. The program also works hard to maintain each placement, so that children move less frequently.

Protecting Futures

Dan Lips, an education analyst with The Heritage Foundation, said child advocates in Arizona are on the right track. He has studied trends in the education of foster care children and found some disturbing statistics.

“Based on any number of factors, children in foster care are at risk of poor life outcomes,” Lips said. “Early evidence of these poor life outcomes is clear in the classroom, and all of the research agrees that the children in foster care are well behind the general population.”

In a report on foster children’s educational needs published by the Maryland Public Policy Institute in October 2005, Lips writes, “Compared to the general population, foster children have lower scores on standardized tests and higher absenteeism, tardiness, truancy, and dropout rates. Research has found that foster care children are more likely than the general population to be convicted of crimes and incarcerated. They are more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, and [more likely] to have poor physical or mental health.

“Adults who were former foster children are more likely to be homeless, unprepared for employment and limited to low-skill jobs, and dependent on welfare or Medicaid,” Lips notes.

Losing Ground

All of those things, Lips said, stem directly from the instability in foster children’s lives–something that doesn’t stop when they enter the foster-care system.

“The Department of Education has a statistic that says a child loses four to six months [of educational progress] any time they transfer,” Lips explained. “In the case of most families, you have the benefit of moving with your family. But these kids are coming from a bad circumstance, often shifting around with nothing at all in the world of stability. Imagine how tough that is.”

Wendy Cloyd ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For more information …

The full text of Dan Lips’ report, “School Choice for Maryland’s Foster Care Children: Fostering Stability, Satisfaction, and Achievement,” is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s online research database, at