In a recent article, L.A. Moves to Fill Educational Stability Gap for Foster Youth Like Alex and Shirley, Daniel Heimpel reported that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a pilot program to ensure that foster youth have transportation to their school of origin.
After describing the new legislation and discussing its importance, Heimpel told the story of “Alex,” a foster youth who found a placement with the family of a school friend after initially being placed in a group home 50 miles from his school.
While educational stability is an important goal, it seems somewhat incongruous to use Alex’s story to illustrate how the new legislation would help achieve it. The new law would not require that students like Alex be placed near their existing schools. Rather, it would require Los Angeles to transport Alex 50 miles each way from the group home to his school.
Margaret Henry, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, noticed the same problem. In her column, When Finding Educational Stability for Foster Youth, Maybe It Does Take a Village, she asks: “Why spend money transporting children for hours to their home school, instead of working harder and more creatively to find them placements in their home school’s district?”
Keeping a child in their home school district, as was done for Alex, creates a win-win situation. The county saves money, and most importantly, the child is spared from spending hours a day in transportation – hours that would cut into time for homework, social life and extracurricular activities.
Judge Henry suggests that parents at schools with a high rate of foster care placement should be recruited, trained and approved as resource families in advance, so that they will already be in place when a child needs a home.
She is on the right track. But I’m not sure that her plan of recruiting foster parents in advance will work.
Years ago, I received a call asking whether I would be willing to provide temporary care for a friend of my son’s, who could no longer remain safely at home. Of course I said yes, and he stayed with us until the crisis was resolved. Although he stayed with us only about a month, I would have been happy to keep him as long as necessary.
But if I were asked by my son’s school to become licensed as a foster parent in the event that one of his classmates were placed in foster care, I would probably not have responded.
As Judge Henry herself points out, most parents are not interested in becoming licensed to take care of a theoretical child. Many more parents would agree to take care of a friend of their own child.
Moreover, Judge Henry’s proposal would apply only in schools with a high percentage of students who are placed in foster care. I don’t know how that would be defined in practice, but what about all the young people in other schools?
There are other ways to place kids near their schools. Before placing a child far away from his/her school, social workers should be required to take specific steps to find a local placement. This would include asking both the child and the school to suggest potential foster parents, which might include parents, teachers and coaches.
Of course, finding a placement near the current school will be easier in cases where the agency knows in advance that a foster child will need a new placement. But when a child needs a placement immediately, Los Angeles County can use its four emergency foster care shelters to keep the child for up to 72 hours while transporting them to their home school.
The timeline is tight, but once a willing family is found, the licensing process should not require more than 24 hours if treated with the urgency it deserves. Like many other jurisdictions, California allows both kin and adults with a prior relationship with a child to obtain an emergency foster care license based on a safety inspection of their home and a criminal background check. The results of the background check can be obtained on the same day, according to DCFS Public Affairs Director Armand Montiel.
Of course, the new foster parents must then go through the more stringent procedures to obtain a permanent license. But in the meantime, children remain at their home school.
Through immediate and energetic recruitment and licensing of foster parents who live near a child’s school, Los Angeles County and other jurisdictions can avoid either unnecessary school changes or long and expensive commutes for children in foster care.
The county may have to hire specialized recruitment staff for this purpose only, but clearly the savings in transportation costs would be far greater.