Proposed FERPA Changes “Focus” on Foster Youth

Records for foster youth are often lost as they are moved around. A game-changing database called Foster Focus is helping social workers and school administrators assist the needs of foster youth by keeping all of their records – from residential history to school documentation – in one place.

Foster Focus was established by the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) to maintain residential, health and school records of foster kids. It was only implemented in two counties when it first started in 2000 but since then, 23 local educational agencies have contracted with SCOE to use the database including the San Francisco Unified School District.

Tom McGeorge, planning analyst for San Francisco’s Human Services Agency, is working with SCOE to finalize the implementation of Foster Focus in the School District this upcoming school year.  In the past, updating foster kids records relied on data from the social workers’ monthly visits but the new database will now update records on a nightly basis.

“Only seeing a child once a month is a long time so this will be used as a case management tool,” McGeorge said.

By monitoring grades, course schedules and school attendance, “this database will allow us to know much more than we’ve known about our foster youth,” he added.

A new bill was introduced this week and, if passed, would amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA. FERPA gives parents legal control over a child’s school records until the age of 18, hindering school officials and social workers from receiving school records.

Sacramento’s Office of Education had to work around FERPA to allow for its robust data sharing, according to Trish Kennedy, SCOE‘s director of Foster Youth Services.

“Not only do we have a Memorandum of Understanding with our agencies, our database is extremely secure,” Kennedy said. “We can also track who logs into the system, where they go and what they look at. In all the years that we’ve had Foster focus, we’ve never had a breach.”

This week, Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA, Tom Marino (R-PA), Michelle Bachman (R-MN) and Jim McDermott (D-WA) introduced the Access to Papers Leads to Uninterrupted Scholars Act (A+ Act). The A+ Act will assist child welfare agencies in “monitoring enrollment, attendance, and school stability of children in their care.”

Jesse Hahnel, director of the Foster-Ed Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law, is a supporter of the Foster Focus system and is working with the Santa Cruz Office of Education to have the program implemented there. To avoid confusion, Hahnel says the county will obtain parental consent for every child in care or will have an order from the presiding juvenile court judge.  This will allow for information sharing with respect to education – a time-consuming process that would be averted if the A+ Act were to become law.

Unlike SF Unified School District, the Santa Cruz Office of Education is having a hard time linking school records into the Foster Focus database.

“Sacramento County has created a system that imports data from child welfare agencies into the [Foster Focus] database but the school information is in a different system,” Hahnel said.  “So getting that information into the database is pretty difficult.”

He doesn’t expect the system to be fully implemented until the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

“You can pull a ton of data on a group of individuals but if the information is not collected, disseminated and reported back in a scientific manner, it becomes irrelevant,” said Mike Jones founder of Courageous Connections.

Jones started Courageous Connections, a non-profit that has partnered with Elk Grove Unified School District and provides normalizing activities for foster children in the public school system. While he thinks the Foster Focus database is a “step in the right direction”, he feels it is necessary to track the effects it has in counties implementing the system.

“I am working on a report right now and using the Foster Focus database. I think it’s a great idea, “ Jones said. “But the problem of maintaining a database this size is getting all of the players to input the information that needs to be known on a timely basis.”

Advocates rallied in Washington D.C. on May 31 to support the new A+ Act. The bill will now make its way up the House of Congress, beginning with its review in an assigned committee hearing.

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