Senate Takes up Charge on Foster Youth School Records

WASHINGTON D.C. –  Down on Capitol Hill, the air is hot, wet and gummy. With recess around the corner and the political parties settling in for a bitter election cycle, few bills of substance are moving or being introduced, save a seemingly small tweak to privacy laws that promises to dramatically change the educational cards for students experiencing foster care.

Yesterday, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) introduced the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which would amend educational privacy law to allow foster care administrations’ access to student records.  The bill was co-sponsored by Charles Grassley (R-Iowa.), Mark Begich (D-Ala.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.),  Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects students’ records from most parties other than parents or schools. A broad array of advocacy and other groups from around the country have long argued that an unintended consequence of FERPA is that foster care social workers, administrators and even foster parents have a hard time accessing educational records, which are critical to assisting children successfully navigate school.

“There are some real horror stories from the field that we have heard about how this is really impeding our ability to help nurture and love these children and get them to a safer place,” Landrieu said in an interview.

One such story is that of RJ Sloke, an intern with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption

RJ Sloke and Uninterrupted Scholars co-sponosr Sen. Amy Klobochar.

Institute’s (CCAI’s) Foster Youth Internship Program. Sloke bounced through 12 high schools and repeated the 9th grade three times, something he attributes in large part to long delays before his records were transferred. At a Hill briefing on July 31, Sloke and 12 other of CCAI’s Foster Youth Interns released a report highlighting the changes they would make to federal foster care policy.

During the briefing, which was attended by Sen. Landrieu and Rep. Karen Bass’ (D-Calif.) co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, Sloke told the story of how he had the opportunity to share the merits of the proposed legislation with the Senator he interned for: Roy Blunt.

“I told him my high school story and why the law would have helped me,” Sloke said in an interview after the briefing. “Every time I moved schools my social worker had a hard time obtaining my records. If you remove that barrier, you will see more youth graduate.

Sen. Landrieu said that Sloke’s story was just one of many examples of why Uninterrupted Scholars needs to move.

“That is RJ’s situation and there are thousands of situations like it,” she said. “This bill will hopefully — and the education we are going to do around it — eliminate this problem and ensure the records flow seamlessly with the child and there is a cooperation between the schools and child welfare agencies.”

In May, Rep. Bass and the co-founders of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth introduced legislation to remedy this same problem. Like the followup on the Senate Side, Bass’ bill had bi-partisan support.

As most of D.C. looks to escape the heat and groans about electoral, partisan gridlock, a small but growing cast of legislators from both sides of the aisle and both the Senate and House side of the Hill are working together to improve the educational opportunities for foster youth.

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