At just one year old, Noel Anaya was separated from her parents and removed from her home in California. Though she was too young to remember leaving her first home, she remembers all the ones that came after— Noel moved through foster placement after foster placement, put in four different families by the time she was eight. Soon, she 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 her 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 foster student test scores, the results were frightening: on average, foster students 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 entrance in the foster care system— maltreatment, family instability, domestic violence or poverty— can contribute to lower academic achievement. But the foster 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 children, 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’ academics. But for those already in the foster network, moving to new foster placements can be just as damaging. Each new placement means a series of disruptive adjustments— to new people, new household routines, new cultural values and sometimes even new cities or states. Anywhere from 22-70% of foster students experience these disruptions per year, often causing uncertainty about the future and a feeling of lost control— the longer a student 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 foster students. Not only do these children have to worry about integrating into a new foster home, but they also must cope with a new school environment, unfamiliar teaching styles and different 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 her 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 foster students 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 placement, consider treating a broken home
There’s a better way to help students succeed: keep children safely at home with their families and in mainstream education. These are the goals of Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect (MST-CAN), a comprehensive, evidence-based intervention for at-risk families designed to help build safe and strong households. Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect takes a fresh approach to supporting families— rather than remove children from the home and meet with caretakers individually, MST-CAN providers work with all members of the family within the home environment, a safe and trusting place. Services are uniquely tailored to each family by professional, trained, master-level clinicians — tailored interventions can include adolescent or adult mental health services, marital interventions, career planning and even educational support. MST-CAN’s holistic approach gives families the opportunity to work on their strengths and weaknesses together, shrinking the chances that students will need a disruptive out-of-home placement and a subsequent school transfer.
Recently, the federal government has made it even easier for states to implement research-based programs like Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect. In February of 2018, policymakers passed the Family First Prevention Services Act— this landmark bill changes the way state and federal governments approach child welfare and foster care. Rather than providing services to families after children are removed from the home, the Family First Act encourages states to fund preventative programs— like MST-CAN— that provide mental health, substance abuse and other treatments to at-risk households. The goal— to reduce occurrence of issues like abuse or neglect before children must be removed— will help decrease rates of foster entry and, subsequently, increase rates of student success. Beginning in October 2019, the federal government will offset 50% of the cost of these preventative programs.
But only proven effective interventions are eligible for this steep federal subsidy. Per the Family First Act, only supported, trauma-informed, research-based programs are approved. MST-CAN meets those requirements— with over 60 studies, 130 peer-reviewed articles and numerous international endorsements, MST-CAN is rated a supported child welfare program with exceptional results. 86% of MST children who have suffered child abuse or neglect are living in safe homes over a year after the end of treatment, and many studies have found greater reductions in out-of-home placement among MST youth than for those receiving treatment as usual. As the Family First Act comes into effect, states should consider implementing supported child welfare programs like Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect to prevent the trauma and academic disruption of foster care entry.