RI Child Welfare Institute holds policy-practice forum

Tonya Glantz
The Rhode Island Child Welfare Institute (CWI) at RIC's School of Social Work held a policy-practice forum, “Connecting Public School and Child Welfare Systems to Students in Foster Care,” on May 11, to promote school success for students in foster care.

The forum grew out of the Education Collaboration Project (ECP), which joins staff from the Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF), teachers at Central Falls High School and individuals who have been in foster care, who came together as part of a graduate studies course taught by Tonya Glantz, interim director of the R.I. Child Welfare Institute.

Glantz noticed that many of her colleagues were having similar issues with the foster-care system, but different opinions on how to go about resolving them. Glantz, who is currently a doctoral student in education, used her dissertation on connecting schools and child-welfare systems to foster-care students for the basis of the CWI forum.

Julie Notarianni, a probation and parole officer for DCYF, spoke about foster-care professionals’ uncertainty about how to balance foster students’ education with their emotional, social and behavioral needs. Notarianni and members of the ECP recognized the lack of communication between child-welfare professionals and schools.

Students from the training team of the ECP – including Morgan Fuchs, Stephanie Blake and Joshua Wizer-Vecchi – explained that members of the ECP had to define two core terms: foster care and school success, and had to recognize the impact of foster-care student demographics.

Stephanie Blake
Nationally about 400,000 youths are in foster care. Locally, the number is approximately 1,200. Foster-care children are over-represented in minority, ethnic and racial groups, and in special education. These youths are reliant on the child-welfare and educational systems for both guidance and decision-making.

Trisha Molloy, a social worker for DCYF, suggested that child-welfare and education systems should operate with equal expectations, which would require giving foster-care students equal access to all educational resources and opportunities. This would educate and unite professionals about the potential of foster students, suggested Molloy.

Sandi Nelson, a juvenile probation officer for DCYF, spoke about her past as a foster-care youth. The oldest of nine children, Nelson admitted she was a challenge to professionals who worked with her. In order for equal expectations to be possible, there needs to be collaboration among professionals who work with foster-care children and cater to their unique needs, suggested Nelson.

Joana-Joe Daou, a special education teacher at Central Falls High School, suggested that stability in a foster student's life is also significant, because they suffer from multiple removals from schools, which impacts their school success. Daou recommended that a child-welfare policy be developed so foster-care students can remain close to their community of origin, and incentives should be created for transportation to and from school if necessary.

“It shouldn't be about creating a barrier,” agrees Roberta Emery, teacher at Central Falls High School. “It should be about closing them.”

“If I hear through the grapevine that there is a student in foster care, I want them,” Emery continued. Professionals should ensure that school will be a stable environment for the foster child above all else, she said.

“I feel good when a child feels welcome,” said Emery, explaining that it only takes a small gesture, like a desk or coat hanger prepared especially for them, for a foster child to feel welcome in a new class. “But I can only do it by communicating with a case worker.”

The arrival of a foster-care student is often a surprise for the teacher, due to the lack of communication between schools and a child-welfare institutes, leading a foster student feel unwelcome, said Emery.

“[Foster children] don't need all the added stress at school. It's the one place they can feel safe,” agreed Kendall Lance, a 20-year-old URI nursing student and a member of The Voice, a foster-care advocacy group comprised of current and former foster youths.

Education Collaboration Project members.
As a foster-care child, Lance attended 46 schools, moving between three states in her senior year alone, and still had to complete Rhode Island's requirement to have a portfolio and final project done before graduation. Lance managed to graduate on schedule with all As and Bs, despite the numerous challenges she faced as a youth in foster care.

Lance and Emery each suggested that there be more collaboration between state high schools, and that information sharing should be more effectively used between schools and child-welfare groups.

Nancy Raftery, a guidance counselor at Central Falls High School, discussed cross-system collaboration. Foster children are overwhelmed by the number of professionals they interact with, said Raftery, and the lack of awareness and communication between these organizations compromise a foster child's school success. Professionals from all systems need to work together to benefit struggling foster-care children, Raftery suggested.

Organizations dealing with foster care are currently focusing too much on the problems of child-welfare, rather than working out solutions for them, said Glantz.

“The [CWI forum] marked the end of my research process [and] data collection, but the beginning of an important discussion,” said Glantz.

For more information, contact Tonya Glantz at (401) 456-4626 or tglantz@ric.edu, or visit www.ric.edu/cwi/ecp.php.