Congress Passes Key Foster Care Education Bill

By. Daniel Heimpel

2013 started with both houses of Congress passing a bill focused on improving the educational outcomes of foster youth.

The Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA), submitted by the bi-partisan co-chairs of both the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and the Senate  Foster Youth Caucus, was approved in the Senate by Unanimous Consent on Dec. 17th, and made it through the House on January 1st.

Among a handful of Members of Congress who took the floor to discuss the bill on Dec. 30 was Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who introduced Uninterrupted Scholars alongside Caucus co-founders Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) in May. “We have a responsibility to foster youth and children who we removed from their parents’ care,” Bass said.  “Youth who we promised to keep safe and help to succeed. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act will help help us keep this promise.”

If signed by the President, Uninterrupted Scholars will amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to allow child welfare agencies access to foster student records. When FERPA was written in 1974, lawmakers’ intended to protect parents’ control over their children’s student records. But, the unintended consequence for children whose parent is the state — like those in foster care — were time-consuming legal hurdles social workers had to jump for access to foster student records.

Jetaine Hart, a former foster youth who now works as an educational mentor for foster youth in Alameda County, California, says that slowed access to student records for child welfare agencies means missed opportunities to celebrate a foster child’s academic success or to help overcome educational challenges. “Now social workers won’t have to wait to access this information – they will know what attendance looks like, know what’s going on with grades and disciplinary action in real time,” Hart said in an interview. “That will help them make better decisions about the educational needs of the kids.”

Further, lawmakers and advocates argue that the new law will help smooth the transition to new schools for foster youth who are used to bouncing from one school to the next as they move from foster home to foster home. Nearly two thirds of former foster youth surveyed by Casey Family Programs in a national alumni study experienced seven or more school moves from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Coupled with the existing barriers in FERPA, educational and child welfare agencies struggle to ensure student records rapidly follow foster youth through school moves. This often results in an unnecessary loss of school credits, which contributes to a dismal foster youth high graduation rate of roughly 50%, according to data compiled by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education.

Miller Floor debate

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) discusses the Uninterrupted Scholars Act on the House floor, Dec. 30, 2012.

“Foster Children are some of the most at risk students,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and the senior democrat on the House Education and The Workforce Committee, said during the floor debate. “Throughout their young lives they may change care placements multiple times. Each placement means adjusting to a new family; often to a new community, new friends and a new school. Each move can put their educational success in jeapordy that’s because the caseworkers who advocate for them as they move from one school to another often do so without critical information. Though current law rightly requires foster care workers to move children’s educational records in their case plans, another federal law limits the ability of caseworkers to access those records in a timely manner.”

R.J. Sloke was a 2012 summer intern with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute‘s Foster Youth Internship Program. Sloke had bounced through a dozen schools in the five years before he aged out of foster care at age 18 and lost many school credits along the way. This caused him to be held back in ninth grade three times. On July 20th, Sloke sat down with Sen. Blunt and told him his story. Touched, the Republican Senator decided to sign on as a sponsor of the Senate Bill, which was soon after introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Upon hearing about Uninterrupted Scholar’s passage in both houses of Congress, Sloke felt encouraged and empowered.

“I feel like all the pain and suffering I went through transferring all those schools wasn’t for nothing,” he wrote in an email. “Now that USA is passed, foster youth have a much better shot at graduating high school, thus helping them to become more self sufficient in their lives.”

Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.

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8 thoughts on “Congress Passes Key Foster Care Education Bill

  1. This is merely the beginning of something WONDERFUL for children in foster care. This IS the year of ‘The Foster Child’. Big things are on the horizon my friends. We just spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours on the fiscal cliff – WHAT ABOUT THE ‘FOSTER CLIFF’ my friends? Let’s spend the same amount of time and money on fixing the Foster Cliff – that place where foster children kicked into once they age out. It’s an even bigger, deeper and darker cliff than the fiscal cliff. The journey to climb out is treacherous, dangerous, and nearly IMPOSSIBLE. How do I know? Because I had to climb it, by myself, no guidance and no help. It truly is a miracle I made it out. http://www.fromfostertofabulous.com I will not stop until ever child has a family!!!

  2. It starts in the foster home. Most of the children that I have taken in have been as much as 4-5 years behind. Foster parents need access to tutors. Trying to bring these children back up to grade level takes nothing short of a miracle. You can pass all the bills you want, you need people down in the trenches doing the work.

    • @Kerry – you are absolutely correct. However, if I might add, trauma is what kept me from learning. Children’s brains are not equipped to handle the magnitude of devastation of their lives and fear takes over EVERYTHING! Even learning, so we must help the child to feel safe (which goes beyond what foster parents can do alone) as well as find tutors in our community for EVERY foster child. We must LIMIT the number of homes a child is in, 1 maybe 2 at the most over the course of their ‘foster tenure’, and we must meet ALL of their unmet needs as well as educating everyone on life & social skill gaps. I am a former foster child and a foster adopted parent, the training we received was no where NEAR what we needed to be COMMITTED foster parents. We were not given the tools necessary to understand the intense trauma our children were in, much less parent them the way they needed to be parented to help them overcome their trauma and be in a place where they could learn. I have since fought for the tools, help and necessary aid to help my foster adopted child go from ‘slightly above mental retardation’ educational level to ‘low to average’ educational level. We must have a deeper knowledge base of FAS and RAD as well. Schools do not consider FAS as a special need and this MUST CHANGE! I could go on and on, Our foster children have been neglected for so long that the list of needs is overwhelming, and it scares everyone off. I have found my voice and I am NO LONGER scared. I am now a middle age woman and I will die fighting for my brothers and sisters in care if that’s what it takes. Communities MUST get involved and offer the necessary resources our children need to succeed. IT TAKES A VILLAGE…….. Thank you for loving God’s children in distress. You are an angel.

  3. As an alumni of the system who also made it out, I advocate with state and national agencies to assist our brothers and sisters in foster care. I want to thank Daniel and Rep. Karen Bass for all they do. It is our responsibility as alumni and professionals in the field of child welfare and education to assist in spreading this message to our state child welfare offices and our youth of their rights.

    Here in Texas we have Texas REACH, a growing initiative of Colleges/Universities and CASEY foundation, that brings foster care issues of students in higher education to the forefront. As a state and national advocate, I work one on one with child welfare professionals as well as youth and alumni that are transitioning out of the system.. We have the research that identifies our youth are not succeeding as adults. There are great foster care parents that navigate their way through the system to assist their children. But lets be real, there a foster parents that dont. Chalk that up to the system or the parent, which ever way you want to look at it.

    In Texas, we have a foster care bill of rights that insure the youth they recieveproper/equal education, etc., however, the youth are still not aware of their rights or their available resources. If the system wont do it, then it is the responsibility of the parent, the mentor, the alumni to speak up and “Be A Voice” to assist this population. There is a disconnect on what is passed federally and what rights and resources are trickled down to the youth. Education advocacy has to start before the youth are graduating, or exiting high school. I speak to youth aging out of the system looking at higher ed, and they dont even know what ETV is!

    We need to collaborate as alumni, advocates, foster parents and child welfare professionals to assist this population.

    I am so proud of the national initiatives that are taking place, I only wish they were around when I aged out in 1982. I will devote my life as a higher education professional to assist foster care youth to succeed in education to be successful in their 20′s and not life an adult life of strife and hopelessness. And I challenge others that read this to do the same.

    Dr. Vivian Dorsett
    College Instructor
    Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA)Texas Chapter
    Texas CASA
    National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council

  4. We at Mt. Diablo Unified Foster Youth Services in Concord, CA look forward to USA being signed into law and implementation thereof! Our foster youth graduate from high school fully prepared to advocate for themselves and they leave connected with adults and each other for support and guidance. ILSP does great work. Foster Youth have their records burned to a protected disc, copies of IEP’s and Section 504 Plans, transcripts, diploma, FAFSA, binders with resource information, and our tel #s on speed dial. We look to http://fosteredconnect.org/ and CSBA for recommended changes to school board policy and best practices for serving foster youth. We are privileged to walk with foster youth and all of the wonderful people who support them.

  5. Pingback: Congress quietly liberalizes FERPA information access to benefit foster children « Student Press Law Center

  6. Thanks for doing this work, Daniel and elected officials!
    Seeing positive images of ourselves–helps us aspire to a different future and gives us a reason to pursue education.

    That’s why I made my foster youth film, America’s Most Unwanted. Yes the title is a play on words–we’re might seem like the most ‘unwanted’ but if you see the film and realize just how many do make it you will realize that feeling wanted and valued can do huge things for youth’s lives. We’re currently also raising funds to get the film to the youth for FREE! each one who has seen it tells us they feel ‘hopeful and inspired’ after watching. This is a great chance to purchase the film for yourself too:
    http://www.indiegogo.com/americasmostunwantedDVD/x/8507

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