Anyone who has ever had to start a new school in the middle of the year probably remembers the barrage of feelings about the situation. Perhaps anger at having to leave the familiar school and all of your friends behind; the anxiety felt about whether or not you will be accepted by your new peers; the fear of not being on the same level as the new school. You may have thought about your grades not transferring, your testing scores being obsolete, you may not be able to make the sports team that you have been so dedicated to at your last school. These are all typical feelings when starting at a new school. Now, think about the feelings that are being compounded when you are living with strangers, separated from your siblings, and, to top it off, this is the third school you have attended in the past two years. This is an unfortunate reality for many of the more than 300,000 youth in America’s Foster Care System and the effects can last a lifetime.
The average length of stay for a child in the American Foster Care system is 12 months. During this year, it is estimated that 85% of youth remain in a single placement. This number drops to 64% in the second year, than to 35% for the third year. The trend tells us that the longer a child stays in the system, the more likely it is for them to get shuffled around. About 39% of all children in Foster Care are teenagers and the likelihood of them being put in a permanent home is significantly less than that of a younger child. In a survey of adults who were involved in the foster care system, 1/3 reported that they had changed schools five or more times.
There is evidence to support that students who are involved in foster care perform below those who are not. For instance, a study by the Casey Family Organization reports that children in foster care score 16 to 20 points lower on standardized achievement tests than children who are not. Another study in the Journal of Social and Personality Psychology finds that children who change schools frequently are more prone to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and even psychosis. These children require significant needs which hinder their ability to find permanent, stable placement, and decreases the chances of adoption.
So let’s follow the logic: A child is removed from their home, let’s say because they are suffering from abuse. They are sent to live with a strange family that they don’t know and continue to manage their feelings about the situation that they are in. A year goes by and they aren’t able to go back home and they get angry. In their anger, they act out and get removed from the foster home. From there, the youth may end up in a variety of settings, such as STARR (Stabilization Assessment and Rapid Reintegration), Group Home, Residential, or even Hospital in-patient. They get out, go to a new placement and a new school and have to play catch up. The pressure and anxiety of catching up on their education, mixed with the fear of living with a strange family, mixed with the anger at being removed from the home, it all sounds like a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
It is important for all educators to understand this dilemma and to reach out and support a youth who comes into their care. It is very important for all social workers to be familiar with laws such as the McKinney-Vento act which allows transportation to the school of origin for homeless youth and youth awaiting foster care placement. It is of utmost importance to understand that you can make a difference and help, by advocating your local and state government for funding, getting involved in children’s organization, or, if you choose, become a mentor or an advocate for a young man or woman in foster care. Also, feel free to share ideas, comments, concerns, or experiences you may have had in the comments section below.