Bill Would Limit School Changes For Foster Children
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
February 29, 2008
In her seven years in state foster care, Cheniece O'Neal lived in seven different foster homes, three residential centers and a shelter.
She had five different social workers, three different lawyers and attended seven different schools.
Being a foster kid and trying to get good grades in school is tough enough, O'Neal told a panel of state legislators Thursday. Having to adjust to a new school, new classes and new friends every few months brings a whole new dimension to the struggle.
"Can you imagine how hard it is to make new friends, stay on task with school work and re-adjust to new families and communities each year, when you are constantly being moved from place to place?" said O'Neal, 16, of New Haven.
"It sounds pretty tough right?" O'Neal asked. "No matter how many times you go through it, you never get used to it — it's that same horrible feeling over and over again."
A bill aired before the legislature's Select Committee on Children Thursday would require the state Department of Children and Families to keep foster children in the school they attended prior to being moved into foster care or to a new foster home.
Advocates testifying in favor of the bill said they repeatedly hear foster children saying how staying in one school would provide critical stability in their often chaotic lives.
Studies show that foster children perform significantly worse in school than children in the general population and frequent school changes increase the risks for failing grades, behavior problems and students dropping out, according to Stacey Violante Cote, a teen legal advocate with the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Research shows it takes a child approximately four to six months to recover academically from a school transfer, Violante Cote said. "The educational cost of multiple transfers is potentially devastating," she said.
"This is not rocket science that kids need stability and consistency," said Bridget Allison, a social studies teacher at Hartford Public High School. Allison said a student in foster care just entered her psychology and the law class in the third marking period. While Allison said she tries to give the new arrival special attention, such distractions impact the entire class and it will take a lot of work for the child to catch up. "It's such a deficit to their educational ability," she said.
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Susan I. Hamilton said she supports the legislation's intent and appreciates the importance of educational stability in a foster child's life. But Hamilton also said she was concerned about the potential costs of transporting children to schools in other towns and whether the law would be flexible enough to consider instances where leaving a child in a particular school might not — in the long term — be best for him or her. She said she was willing to work with the drafters of the bill to see if such goals could be accomplished other ways.
One of the bill's leading proponents, state Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, said the law would limit potential travel time for foster children to 25 minutes or less. She said early estimates have the program costing the state about $500,000 a year.
Oregon, which has about 7,730 children in foster care compared with Connecticut's approximately 5,880, recently enacted similar legislation, Violante Cote said. Oregon's department of human services is setting aside $375,000 a year to run the program, she said.
Walker said Connecticut could fund the school transportation through DCF's $34 million flexible fund program, which is supposed to distribute small allotments of money to help individual foster kids when they need it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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