A Comfortless Reality
At just one year old, Noel Anaya was separated from his parents and removed from his house in California. Though he was too young to remember leaving his first home, he remembers all the ones that came after— Noel moved through foster placement after foster placement, put in four different families by the time he was eight. Soon, he was sent outside of California, first to Michigan and then to Idaho. “Some foster families were religious and encouraged me to participate in their traditions, which felt strange,” Noel remembers. “I moved around so much, I never felt like I fit in.” Noel’s experience of constant movement, adjustment, and loneliness isn’t merely his own— for many foster children across the country, impermanence is a comfortless reality. And what is one of the most critical, long-term effects of these constant new foster placements? A child’s ability to succeed in school.
In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act— part of this bill required states to begin reporting on foster children’s educational success. As the country started compiling data on test scores of students in the child welfare system, the results were frightening: on average, students in foster care test 20 percentage points lower than their non-foster peers in math, reading, and writing. That’s a difference of two full grade levels between children in the foster care system and those who remain in their homes. To be sure, many of the factors associated with the entrance into the foster care system— maltreatment, family instability, domestic violence, or poverty— can contribute to lower academic achievement. But the child welfare system itself may also be part of the problem.
The Stress of Uncertainty
A child’s initial removal from their home, regardless of age, is often a distressing and even traumatic event. Psychologists agree that spending time apart from caretakers can have harmful effects on youth, affecting their cognition, ability to regulate behaviors, and mental wellness. The many stresses of first-time involvement with the child welfare system— moving to new places, speaking with strangers about family members, and separation from siblings— can be extremely damaging to students’ academic success. But for those already in the foster care network, moving to new placements can be just as bad. Each new accommodation means a series of adjustments— to new people, household routines, cultural values, and sometimes even different cities or states. Anywhere from 22-70% of students in foster care experience these disruptions per year, often causing uncertainty about the future and a feeling of lost control— the longer an adolescent remains in foster care, the more likely they are to experience multiple new placements. But the highest damage occurs to educational achievement when these placement moves are coupled with transfers to new schools.
Changing schools and districts, particularly mid-year, comes with a host of stressors and struggles for students involved in child welfare. Not only do these adolescents have to worry about integrating into a new home, but they also must cope with a different school environment, unfamiliar teaching styles, and new course content. In the switch between schools, critical information about students— like medical restrictions or special educational needs— can be lost. “I began to notice serious gaps in my learning from changing schools so often,” Noel Anaya writes of his high school experience as a foster student. “I was enrolled in a geometry class without having learned the prerequisite math.” This is not uncommon. When students in foster care must change schools, it shows: a single home placement change is associated with a 2.52 percentage point reduction in reading growth but adding a school change makes that reduction over 6 percent. In California, an average of 35% of foster students graduate from high school per year. And only 3% of former foster students across the country will receive a college education.
Instead of Out-of-Home Placements, Consider Treating a Broken Home
A better way to help students succeed is to keep them safely at home with their families and in mainstream education. These are the goals of Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect (MST-CAN), an evidence-based intervention for families involved in child protective services, designed to help build safe and strong households. MST-CAN takes an innovative approach in supporting families— rather than remove youth from the home and meet with caretakers individually, MST-CAN providers work with all members of the family within the home, school, and community. Services are uniquely tailored to each family by professional, trained, master-level clinicians — tailored interventions can include child, adolescent, or adult mental health services including treatment for trauma, marital interventions, career planning, substance misuse treatment for adults and young people, and even educational support. MST-CAN’s holistic approach empowers families to use their strengths to work on the contributing factors that have brought them into the child protection system, shrinking the chances that students will need a disruptive out-of-home placement and a subsequent school transfer.
Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect (MST-CAN) is an evidence-based program for families who are at risk of having their children placed out of the home. MST-CAN utilizes a built-in suite of services within the home, school, and community settings. Services include, but are not limited to, on-going safety assessment and planning, family communication and problem-solving skills, parenting skills, clarification of the abuse, substance misuse interventions, mental health services including treatment for PTSD for adults and children, and couples therapy.
If you know of someone that would benefit from MST-CAN or you would like to start an MST program in your area, please click here.