Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #7: Moving Toward Trauma-Informed Schools

Ixchel Martinez, 28, a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Social Work

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 10 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Ixchel Martinez, 28, a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

The Proposal

Martinez makes two proposals aimed at improving the school experience of foster youth. First is a competitive grants program at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to develop, and then implement, a model of “trauma-informed schools.” Second is a more robust data collection process related to educational outcomes for youth in foster care, including attendance, graduation, school discipline and more.

The Argument

The academic data that is available on youth in foster care is not good. Martinez, citing the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, notes that youth in care are two times more likely to be absent from school compared to other students. And frequent absence from school correlates predictably with school suspensions and failure to graduate.

Martinez argues that academic problems among foster youth are likely interwoven with the difficulty of processing and overcoming childhood trauma.

In Their Own Words

“What I really needed from my school was a supportive environment with a trauma-informed approach that recognized the origin of my challenging behaviors. Since the foster care and education systems did not have that approach, I was left in those settings with significant untapped potential.”

The Chronicle’s Take

On the trauma-informed schools front, SAMHSA might look at supporting efforts to evaluate and replicate the Trauma-Sensitive Schools model developed in Massachusetts by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. Massachusetts may include $750,000 for the trauma-informed schools venture in this year’s budget.

Tools for Transformation, the most recent set of policy proposals from the Foster Youth Internship Program.

As for the data collection, Martinez identifies an array of indicators that would expose state and local education systems that were struggling to support foster youth. One challenge here is that for some of this stuff, especially school discipline, most states don’t have good data, period, let alone information sortable by foster youth. California, which provides supplemental money to counties to serve foster youth, does require specific data collection as part of that process.

She proposes the collection go through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the central conduit of data on foster youth to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Once the new rules for AFCARS data are approved for good, child welfare agencies will likely be required to note the highest academic level attained by youth, and document the reasons for changes in schools. We are skeptical that AFCARS, populated by child welfare workers, is the right vehicle for the type of data Martinez calls for.

A better bet might be to establish some education reporting system on youth in care through the school systems that flowed up to the Department of Education.

As Martinez points out, 24 states are already engaged in data-sharing arrangements between their education and child welfare agencies. All states should have that bridge built, now that the Uninterrupted Scholars Act has been on the books for several years.

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