One key population for dropout prevention in Philadelphia is the almost 2,900 adolescents – 14 years old and older – in the custody of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services (DHS).
According to a 2003 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, youth in foster care are as much as twice as likely to drop out of school as other teens.
They often face instability in their home or placement and school lives in addition to the stresses of the abuse or neglect that got them involved in the child welfare system in the first place.
“We [the child welfare system and the school system] need to work more closely together to meet the special needs of kids in foster care...It's just a big system and these kids get lost,” said Happi Grillon, Director of Placement Services at Youth Services Incorporated. “Things work better at the elementary and middle school levels but at high school it's harder because [the schools] are so big.”
Multiple factors may get in the way of providing adequate attention to their education. Child advocates point to the lack of priority given by the child welfare system to students' educational progress, to poor coordination between the major systems that have responsibility for them, to a lack of continuing and supportive adult relationships while in care, and to a lack of connection with a significant caregiver or supporter once they leave foster care.
About 500 of Philadelphia foster care youth “age out” of dependent care each year, meaning they have reached the age when they can legally be in charge of their own lives and DHS no longer has custody. For most youth, this critical transition occurs when they turn 18, at which point they may or may not have completed school.
Data are available on the total numbers of children that are or have been in DHS custody, but not on how those in Philadelphia's foster care system are doing academically. The education and child welfare systems do not communicate and share information about these students.
But there are valuable studies of youth in foster care from around the country. When compared to the general population, children in foster care have lower literacy and numeracy rates, are less likely to be performing at grade level, and are placed in special education classes at higher rates. Foster youth also face a higher risk of grade retention, are suspended at twice the rate of other students, and are nearly four times as likely to be expelled from school.
Undiagnosed or untreated mental health disorders also limit these students' educational progress.
In a study conducted by Casey Family Programs, over half of their foster care alumni have one or more mental health disorders. The same study found that over 25 percent suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), nearly twice the rate of PTSD in U.S. war veterans. Major depression and social phobia are also very common.
Youth in out-of-home placement also change schools frequently. The Casey study found that 65 percent of the alumni changed schools seven or more times from elementary through high school.
“For every school move, the child loses 6 months academically,” said Victoria Curran, of New York City's Administration for Children's Services. In part this is due to the normal adjustment period that a child faces in getting used to the new teachers and school environment and in developing a new social network. But it is also the result of difficulties and delays that foster care parents and social workers face when enrolling the youth in the new school and attempting to arrange for needed services and evaluations.
According to DHS providers, this is especially true with the School District of Philadelphia. A recent study of DHS group homes reported some providers as saying that “the process of retrieving records from the SDP, obtaining a psychological evaluation by the new school, and assigning the youth to the appropriate grade can take between two weeks and two months.”
Some say that the child welfare system has not given education the attention that it should, because of the mandate to focus on the safety and protection of the children in their care.
In a recent audit of a sample of their case files, DHS found that only 75 percent of the cases had up-to-date report cards in their files. More importantly, although the paper records exist in some cases, there is no place in their computer files to input, count, and track education data. Hence DHS cannot develop adequate education support plans for these students. And since the School District is not informed which of their students are in foster care, they also do not make specific plans for their needs.
Since behavior and safety are considered primary, youth in dependent care tend to have less support and encouragement about their education. They also may have difficulty making sustained relationships with adults because they change homes so frequently, their social workers often change or leave agencies, and they often have limited associations with their biological family.
Child advocates note that DHS provides two primary avenues to help youth build supportive relationships and acquire resources to help make the transition to adulthood. The “board extension” allows youth to stay in care through age 21 so they can continue their education, including high school, trade school, or college. Ordinarily a youth would automatically age out at age 18 and would no longer be eligible for DHS services.
Also, the Achieving Independence Center (AIC) serves youth that are or were in DHS's custody at age 16 or older, providing life coaches and assistance with education, employment, computer training, relationship guidance and other areas.
“For the most part, any youth that we serve – if they are given proper academic support and resources – they are able to go on to graduate from high school and go on to further training or college,” said Harold Brooks of Temple University's Center for Social Policy and Community Development, one of the partnering agencies at the AIC.