Child Welfare Ideas From the Experts, #10: Preventing Misuse of Special Education

Ta’Kijah Randolph, 22, Foster Youth Intern for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 11 former foster youths who completed Congressional internships. The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington. Today, we highlight the recommendation of Ta’Kijah Randolph, 22, a senior at California State University and one of seven siblings to be taken into foster care.

The Proposal

Address the high rate of foster youth entering special education through three actions:

  • Requiring advocates for foster children to be trained to help screen and refer foster children for mental health and behavioral needs
  • Amend individualized education programs (IEPs) for foster children to include plans aimed at addressing mental health, emotional and behavioral needs
  • Mandate biannual assessments of IEPs for foster youths

The Argument

Foster youth are three times as likely to enter special education than their peers, according to 2011 research that Randolph cites from the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education. Foster youth are also far more likely than the average student to have mental health or behavioral challenges.

Randolph contends that the overlap of those two over-representations creates a problem: foster youths whose mental health struggles are mistaken for learning disabilities.

“There is no doubt that special education is effective for some students,” she contends, but the designation can be detrimental to the advancement of students who do not belong there.

In Her Own Words

On the academic experience of her sister, 16, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has remained in special education despite a 3.2 grade point average:

“I will never forget when she said, ‘I don’t know why I am still in special-ed. I just want to be normal; I am smart too.”

I asked, ‘What are they doing to help you with your…bipolar disorder?’ and she simply said, ‘Nothing.'”

The Chronicle’s Take

Per law, a special education student’s IEP is developed and overseen by an IEP team, and that team must be assembled at least once a year to review it. So Randolph’s request for a biannual assessment simply doubles the number of team meet-ups for foster youth; unless, of course, the law on IEP team reviews is frequently ignored. We have no sense of that either way.

Her broader point, though, is that it’s entirely possible that foster youth are frequently shuttled into special education for one of two bad reasons:

  1. Because the very significant emotional challenges they’re dealing with at the time make a student appear less capable than they normally are, or
  2. Because a more acute mental health or behavioral problem is mistaken for a learning disability

How to get at this? Randolph hits on an interesting concept: Pairing the IEP with referrals to mental health services. This virtually forces people at the table to think about academics and mental health at the same time.

It might be even more effective to require a mental health records review with the initial determination on whether to place a foster youth in special education. This might stop an unwarranted special-ed placement before it started.

Click here to read Randolph’s entire proposal and those of her fellow FYI participants.

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1 Comment

  1. Pairing the IEP with referrals to mental health services is a fantastic idea. I know many foster youth who were unnecessarily placed into special-ed for mental health and behavior issues.

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