Foster Care Month Goes Out with a Bang in Washington

The Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth brought National Foster Care Month to an end with a day of events yesterday:

-Foster Youth Shadow Day, during which about 40 “alumni” of the foster care system shadowed a member of the House of Representatives that hailed from their state.

-A press conference to announce the introduction of the Access to Papers Leads to Uninterrupted Scholars Act (A+ Act), which would amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in an effort to speed up the transfer of education records for children who need to change schools after being removed from their homes.

-A Foster Youth Town Hall, held at the Capitol Building, where Congressional members and staffers were invited to listen to and ask questions of former foster youths who had moved on to college and the work force.

A few thoughts on each event:

Shadow Day

Foster alums and some staffers donned electric blue Foster Care Awareness month t-shirts, and the design was a really compelling concept that other organizers should take note of.  The top half of the shirt was a big white space that took a shape somewhere between the event name-tag you get at fundraisers and a thought bubble in a cartoon.

Below the white space in black graffiti-style writing was scrawled: “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Shirt-donners all wrote a child welfare issue into the white space with a black sharpie: “Future Foster Parent,” “Domestic Human Trafficking,” “Child Welfare Finance Reform,” were the first three I spied.

Other foster youths chose to dress in the more traditional Capitol Hill attire of business suits; all of them were dressed better than this reporter.

A+ Act

We covered the act all day yesterday on The Chronicle website, including pieces on what the legislation says,  its origins, and some local examples of how FERPA had served as an obstacle for caseworkers in child welfare proceedings.

YSI has a few additional musings on A+:

-Obviously, it will need to be paired with Senate legislation to get to the president’s desk. Would President Obama sign it? It seems likely. There did not appear to be any Administration on Children, Youth and Families officials at the event announcing the bill, but two did show up for the Town Hall later: ACYF Deputy Commissioner Clare Anderson and Sonali Patel, a senior policy advisor to ACYF Commissioner Bryan Samuels.

-There is absolutely no doubt that foster youths are getting a raw deal because child welfare systems and school districts do not share records well. The foster alums on hand spoke out ardently for this, and it was not a lot that took the rights of biological parents lightly. By far, the issue most written into the Shadow Day t-shirts was “Family preservation and reunification.”

How much of the problem is due to FERPA protection, versus simple incompetence, is difficult to parse.

Carmen Miranda, a soft-spoken Hill staffer and foster youth alum, told press conference attendees that she spent

Before the event, YSI got to sit down to lunch with Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) and two alums from his state, Michael Simelton and James McIntyre. Simelton was moved from his home in Cairo to a shelter in Carbondale, and could not attend school because his records were impossible to find.

McIntyre was adopted, but when the adoption failed and he returned to state custody, nobody could find his academic records or information about his immunizations, which most schools require in order for a student to enroll.

Miranda was held up from attending school because of privacy rights, which is what Bass and the caucus hope to address with A+.

The act will not directly help address the fact that school districts lose records though, although simplifying caseworker access to the records might make it more likely that records would survive and make the trip from school to school with foster youths. There is also the hope that between some requirements the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, along with the looming rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, foster youths just won’t be moved from school to school as frequently.

-If it passes as presently written, ACYF will have at least one definition to make through guidelines: “a child welfare court proceeding,” in the context of the following change made by the act:

“When a parent is a party to a child welfare court proceeding, and the order is issued in the context of that proceeding, additional notice to the parent by the educational agency or institution is not required.”

It seems to YSI that how one chooses to view a “child welfare court proceeding” dictates the universe of parents who would lose the right to protect their children’s educational records.

Does an investigation of abuse/neglect by child welfare constitute a court proceeding? Would it need to rise to the level of substantiated abuse/neglect before the exemption kicks in? Or even more narrow: Would a FERPA exemption only kick in when a motion is made for removal from the home for any amount of time?

***UPDATE, JUNE 7:
After reading through the bill again, the above clause simply refers to the process of schools notifying parents after a court orders the school to turn over records. There is a bigger amendment to FERPA in the bill that actually creates an outright exemption for child welfare agencies.

State or local child welfare agencies could access records without court orders or parental consent under the law “such agency or organization has responsibility for the student’s placement and care, provided that the education records, or the personally identifiable information contained therein, of the student will not be disclosed by such agency or organization except for the purpose and to the extent necessary to address the student’s educational needs.”

Same deal here: HHS will have some defining to do if the bill passes as it is. “Responsibility for the student’s placement and care” will be the big one: does that mean children who must be actually cared for by the state through an out-of-home placement, or any child for which an abuse/neglect case is substantiated? Many of those youths remain in their homes, but if it’s an open case the agency would have some responsibility for placement and care.

***

-ACYF would be wise to instruct systems on what to do with the education records after use by a child welfare caseworker. Researchers that use personally identifiable academic records have to destroy identifying information as soon as they no longer need it. Would the same apply here, or would the agency get to retain records, even if the child was reunified and the case was closed?

Town Hall
The previous town hall, hosted by Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), led directly to the A+ legislation (click here to read how in a piece by Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel). What themes prevailed at yesterday’s meeting?

Fostering for profit
More than one alum made the point that for every good foster parent, there are many in it for a paycheck. Not the most comfortable topic for the caucus, whose members heavily lauded the work of foster parents at the press conference earlier in the day.

Laughable legal help
“How many of you had a lawyer or a guardian ad litem?” Hastings asked the alums on hand.

“Had one, or met them?” someone shot back almost immediately.

Enough said. Improving legal services for youths in the juvenile justice system is part of the larger Access to Justice Initiative of the Department of Justice, a project conceived of by Attorney General Eric Holder.

A Justice Department solicitation went out in fiscal 2010 for a grant to start the Juvenile Indigent Defense Clearinghouse, but it appears that a winner was never selected.

Hastings could look to make legal assistance for dependency court-involved youths a legislative issue. It would likely have to be a scenario where some portion of federal funds is tied to meeting certain guarantees of public defenders for children in child welfare proceedings, perhaps with a caseload maximum included. It would be a tough legislative sell at the moment, because it’s essentially passing more costs onto states and counties who are in no fiscal mood to receive such news.

Into Adulthood with Money

Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) is an adoptive parent and said his teenage son arrived at their home with a small bag full of belongings and no money. He asked the alums whether any of them were provided any sort of account or money when they aged out.

The vast majority on hand shook their heads “No.” Simelton, the young man who trailed Rep. Schilling earlier in the day, said Illinois did start to set aside funds for older foster youth, a “couple thousand dollars,” he told Marino. It was not nearly enough to meet the bills and costs of adulthood, he told Marino, but crucial nonetheless.

Note: This column was updated on June 7

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1118 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.