School Choice – How to stay involved in your child’s education when your child is in foster care.

School choice artwork

Art by Patricia Battles

Erika Palmer, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children in New York City, explains parents’ rights to stay involved in their children’s education while their children are in foster care. Advocates for Children’s special project on foster care guides parents and child welfare agencies on educational decision-making for children in care.

1. Keep in Contact With the School

Parents should know that, even if you can’t have unsupervised contact with your children when they enter foster care, you can still go to their schools, talk to their teachers, or get any school documents unless there’s a court order saying you can’t have contact with the school. Also, the child protective agency is required to do school visits, and these visits should involve the parent. Finally, if the child changes schools after entering foster care, the parent should be involved in that decision.

When children enter foster care, there’s nothing legally that says your right to make educational decisions about your child should change unless the court has limited or terminated your parental rights. However, in practice, many decisions are made about the child’s education without the parent’s consent unless the parent is very involved.

For instance, foster parents can register a child to enter a new school near the foster home and that’s usually what they do, even though changing schools in the middle of a year is harmful to a child’s education.

Also, if the parent does not stay in contact, the school district can appoint a surrogate parent to make educational decisions. Schools usually appoint the foster parent as the surrogate, because they don’t know about other options, but it doesn’t have to be the foster parent. You can seek to have family appointed if necessary.

2. Explain Your Rights to the School

Parents can help the school understand what’s changed and what hasn’t changed since their child entered foster care. For instance, if the foster parent registers a child at a new school, the school will often send home notices and report cards to the foster parent’s address. Parents can ask the school to send copies to their address, too.

We’ve developed with child welfare agencies a very general letter that says, basically: “This parent’s child is in foster care. I am writing to let you know that the parent maintains all rights to make educational decisions, access records, or visit the child’s school and teacher. Please answer any questions the parent may have.” A letter like that, signed by the agency or your attorney, can be helpful.

3. Try to Keep Your Child from Switching Schools

If possible, you should work with the foster care agency to keep your children from switching schools when they enter foster care. Research has found that children fall behind 4-6 months every time they change schools in the middle of the school year, unless it’s a planned transfer. However, agencies routinely place children in schools closer to a foster parent’s home.

Last year, the federal government passed the Fostering Connections Act, which has a section on school stability. It says that children need to stay in their original school unless it’s in the child’s best interest to change, and child welfare agencies can use federal dollars to pay for transportation.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how the new law should work. It doesn’t say who gets to make a decision about whether a child changes schools or how transportation should be provided. Every state is struggling with how they can arrange to transport individual kids to school.

In New York City, we’re working with Legal Aid and other advocacy groups to propose legislation that would help to create a meaningful way of implementing the law.

For now, our advice is that, if a parent in any state wants the child to remain in the same school, she should make her attorney and the foster care agency aware of that and really push school and child welfare staff to work out an arrangement, like giving the child bus or taxi fare, or exploring a foster home placement closer to the child’s school.

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