The Uninterrupted Scholars Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Monday, paving the way for easier access to the education records of foster youths by their caseworkers.
“The records of foster youth could not be easily obtained by the agency with custody of them, and that made no sense whatsoever to us,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the bill’s authors and co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth.
The bill creates an exception for child welfare workers in regard to the protections included in the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), which until this week required child welfare workers to either obtain parental consent for a transfer of education records, or receive a court order from a judge.
“These children get labeled, and then they get lost,” Landrieu said, speaking on a press call about the bill today. “This is one of many acts we’re working on to assist them.”
The Administration for Children Families (ACF) will issue a joint letter with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to alert state education and child welfare departments about the changes, said George Sheldon, who oversees ACF at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Foster youth are often forced to switch schools when they change foster or group homes. Many schools will not enroll a student until his records have arrived, particularly information related to immunizations received by the child.
When incomplete student records accompany foster youth to new schools, it often costs the student credits. R.J. Sloke, a former foster youth from South Carolina, said he made it to his eleventh school as a 17-year-old freshman before someone took interest in his academic history.
With the help of a faculty member, not his social worker, Sloke pieced together his whole record and was immediately reclassified as a rising high school junior.
The Uninterrupted Scholars Act eliminates the biological parent’s right to prevent the use of those records by child workers. The act amends FERPA to create an exception for “an agency caseworker or other representative of a State or local child welfare agency…when such agency or organization is legally responsible, in accordance with State or tribal law, for the care and protection of the student.”
Child welfare workers can only share or discuss those records with individuals or other entities “engaged in addressing the student’s education needs.
“It’s 100 percent cost effective because it doesn’t cost an extra penny and removes all the barriers social workers have,” said Sloke, who interned last summer for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Kan.) and now works on Landrieu’s staff.
Early versions of the legislation included a similar exception for use of records for research on “federal and state education-related mandates governing child welfare agencies.” An early House version specifically referred to enrollment practices, attendance and school stability as three issues of interest.
According to Landrieu, that aspect of the act was killed by objections from “one or two” Senate Republicans, including Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the ranking minority member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
“We fought hard for that, but we ran into a brick wall,” a disappointed Landrieu said of the research exception. “The only promise we got was it would be considered when FERPA reauthorization” came up.
The act originated in the House as the Access to Papers Leads to Uninterrupted Scholars Act, co-authored by Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Tom Marino (R-Penn.), Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).
The Senate version was submitted by Landrieu, with Republican support from Sens. Roy Blunt (Kan.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa).
The bill addresses one challenge within a bigger problem: The fact that foster youth have to jump from school to school in the first place. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed in 2008, requires child welfare agencies to keep children in their school of origin unless it is not in the child’s best interest to do so.
Sheldon, who led Florida’s Department of Children and Families before joining the administration, said that and other requirements of Fostering Connections were difficult to comply with because of FERPA.
“I recognize the importance of privacy,” Sheldon said on the press call today. But when a child is in foster care, “the state is a parent of that child and is responsible to know everything about a child’s advancement.”
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change