Why Do Foster Youth Suffer Sub-Standard Education?

Too many foster kids do not graduate high school and too few go on to learn a vocation or earn an advanced degree. Although we’re just as smart and capable as non-foster kids, the status of “ward of the court” often limits us to a sub-standard education.

How could it be otherwise?

Being removed from the familiar and placed in the care of strangers is a traumatic life event that handicaps the learning process.  For example, young – often scared and confused – minds searching for answers to complex questions such as “What’s happening to me?”, “Where is my brother?” or “Why can’t I live with my mommy?” tend not to focus on conjugating verbs, memorizing the times tables or completing homework.

An immature mind in emotional chaos does not deem these tasks a priority when it’s in “survival mode.”

Additionally, a foster child’s attendance, grades or graduation may not be a priority for some foster parents, case workers or other child welfare professionals. Tanisha Cunningham describes her poor educational experience growing up in a group home on page 52 of our 2013 e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto:

Living in a group home, I was never monitored while I was going to school.  No one ever asked me how was school?  Did I do my homework?  Where was my report card?  I had to discipline myself to attend school.  I remember playing hooky my whole 11th year without anyone knowing. The staff never checked on me and the school officials never reported my absence because to them being a foster child … it was expected.

Furthermore, the lack of stability resulting from moving about in foster care – which usually means changing schools, teachers, lesson plans and classmates – is a sure-fire way to derail learning for even the brightest and most motivated students.

Living in multiple placements often means attending different schools, which destabilizes the educational process, thereby reducing academic performance while increasing the dropout rate.

These are not conditions conducive to a quality educational experience. Indeed, they are but a few of the more obvious reasons why so many foster kids fail to realize their potential, which is why so many wards of the court suffer adjustment problems upon emancipation and lead lesser adult lives.

Elizabeth Sutherland describes her emancipation experience on page 123 of our 2009 book, Growing Up in the Care of Strangers:

I graduated Andrews High School June 4, 1998; turned 18 June 9 and moved into a one-bedroom apartment the next day. I had barely more than the clothes on my back when I exited placement: no furniture, no bed, no job, no friends and no adult to guide me.

Depressed and disconnected, I fell in with the wrong crowd, who introduced me to alcohol and drugs.  I self-medicated for a while, as I tried to fit into society.

I was so scared, so confused, so alone, so traumatized by my past and so intimidated by the future.  I just wanted to belong.  Oh, how I needed to feel a part of something…anything.

Being a ward of the court, of course, often means that a foster child does not benefit from being part of a family, such as emotional and financial support or a place to come home to over the holidays.

This lack of what Dr. John Seita calls “family privilege” makes college especially difficult for some foster kids. How does an orphan get loans, pay tuition, buy books and put a roof other his head or food in her belly?  Where does a college student with no biological family eat Thanksgiving dinner or spend Christmas vacation?

These are the kinds of questions we must answer to produce more high school, vocational and college graduates and improve the quality of their educational experience.

Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Associate Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.

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About Waln Brown, Ph.D. 22 Articles
Dr. Waln Brown spent his adolescence in an orphanage, detention center, state hospital and juvenile reformatory and is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. Dr. John Seita experienced 15 foster care placements and is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University.


  1. Nice blog. I honestly believe that foster youth are constantly reminded of how they’re victims. Maybe if we stopped victimizing ourselves then maybe we would advance. they feed us with so much negativity that we’re going to believe it. I know in my experienced, I always had support. I blamed my addiction to foster care, but in reality I just said that so I wouldn’t get in trouble because they all thought I was doing what I was doing because I’m a ward of the court. We youth are sneaky, we just need to be fed with positivity and held accountable for our actions. I think maybe that will solve some issues in foster youths education. But then again, this is just one factor out of many more. Just my opinion. But very nice work Dr Waln

  2. Very insightful article. As a Social Worker in the system (both public and private) in Texas, I observed all of the obstacles you describe. Advocacy for the educational needs of youth has generally not been a priority. When there is a focus on education, it tends to be at the post secondary level, with little to no recognition that college scholarships are worthless if the student is not academically prepared K-12.

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