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School Changes Can Help Keep Students in Class, Out of Foster System

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Toronto

In the United States, entering the child welfare system doubles a student's risk of chronically missing school—but for educators hoping to boost attendance, context is key.

A new study previewed here at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting suggests that different kinds of family problems can aggravate students' absenteeism in different ways, and schools should work to understand that context when crafting supports to help students get to class.

Kevin Gee, an associate education professor at the University of California Davis, looked at national absenteeism data for a representative sample of 250 school-age students who were involved in a formal child protective services investigation between 2008-09 and 2011-12. That information, which came from the National Survey on Child and Adolescent Well-Being, represented 160,000 students involved in the system.

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Eighteen percent of the students missed at least 15 days of school in the year they were involved in investigations, Gee found—twice the national absenteeism rate. Nearly 3 in 4 of those students were investigated because of suspected neglect, but Gee found those students weren't driving the increase in absenteeism. Rather, physical abuse was associated with significantly more school absences than neglect or emotional or sexual abuse. Interestingly, Gee found a student's physical-abuse history was more strongly associated with chronic absenteeism than a student switching foster care placements.

While a few states, such as Oregon, require districts to take student trauma into account when planning to improve student attendance, Gee said many schools know little about how to address issues of abuse or home instability in efforts to address chronic absenteeism. In fact, because most states have been slow to share data among school districts and child welfare agencies as called for under the Every Student Succeeds Act, in many schools, teachers aren't even aware when a student's family is under investigation, much less why.

"The most common reporter of abuse and neglect for adolescents are the schools themselves," said Rob Geen, the director of policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which studies children in foster care. "So having child welfare systems work collaboratively with the schools would ... provide an opportunity to wrap around services and supports to the family. That's better for everyone involved."

Schools Supporting Families

In fact, school outreach to families in distress can be critical to reduce both student absenteeism and the number of students entering foster care, Geen said. 

Data released earlier this week by the Casey Foundation show fewer children entering the foster care system, in part due to changes in state and federal laws that encourage more family supports. 

The Family First Act, passed last year as part of the Congressional budget reconciliation, provides money for state efforts to reduce the number of children entering foster care, as well as to keep those who are in the system in family placements rather than group homes. The law allows states to reimburse mental health care, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, and in-home training programs to boost parenting skills.  

"We're at a sort of unique moment in time, a moment of opportunity right now," Geen said. "States now have new resources and an opportunity to design interventions that are focused on preventing kids from coming into care. If I was an education person, I would want to be at the table providing advice on what I see and what I think is needed."

For students who are removed, the Casey Foundation found the percentage of foster children placed with families, as opposed to group homes, has ticked up over the last decade across all states and Washington, D.C., from 81 percent in 2007 to 86 percent in 2017.

"We believe that if a child can't be with someone they already know, the next best option is a well-supported family that can give them individualized attention and care," Geen said.

That matched Gee's findings. Children placed with a biological or adoptive parent were less likely to miss school than those placed with a relative, he found, and children cared for in homes with more children overall missed more school than students placed in homes with fewer children.

"I think in some ways we need to flip the narrative on absenteeism. We focus a lot on problems with the kids, or drama with the family, but I thing there are also broader systemic issues involved," Gee said. 

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