By Kelli Kennedy
Federal lawmakers proposed a bill Thursday that would give social workers better access to school records in an effort to improve education for foster children.
A federal law requires social workers to get a court order to access a foster child's school records, and it was meant to protect the child's privacy. But advocates said the extra red tape has made it extremely difficult for social workers because foster youths change schools frequently as they move between different homes. Some end up taking the same classes over because credits are lost or don't transfer.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said that extra red tape was a perfect example of unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation. She sponsored the bill with Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn.; Tom Marino, R-Pa.; and Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
"The consequence is that a lot of times foster workers end up operating blindly. If you can't get your school records to travel with you, that student goes to another school and repeats course they've already had or immunizations they've already had," said Bass, who said the group is trying to capitalize on bipartisan support for the bill.
The proposed law would give child welfare workers access to school records and pave the way for better data sharing between education and child welfare agencies. The bill would also allow child welfare agencies to use education records to study how well foster kids are measuring up to federal education mandates.
Bass has been traveling the country discussing foster care issues. She met with officials in Florida in March.
The group of sponsors has centered on education issues, noting that 50 percent of the nation's more than 400,000 foster kids won't graduate from high school. Nearly 94 percent of those who do make it through high school do not finish college, according to a 2010 study from Chapin Hall, the University of Chicago's research arm.
Advocates say it's been difficult to coordinate policies and data sharing among multiple government agencies.
Last fall, federal child welfare officials sent a letter advising education and child welfare to state officials of a 2008 law that requires the children to remain at the same school after they are placed in a new foster home. It is routinely ignored by state and local officials who say it's impractical and too expensive.
About 40 foster youths from around the country attended press conference to announce the legislation in Washington. They were also shadowing lawmakers, and to share their stories at policy briefings. A 22-year-old former foster year shadowed Bass for the day.
"You're just in awe of the circumstances that some of these kids have survived and the progress that they've made in spite of those," Bass said.
Former Florida foster youth Breon Callins shadowed Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., for the day and said he was inspired by the Florida congressman's passion for policy issues.
Callins, who was in foster care from ages 9 to 12 years old, is now 20 and working on a degree in forensic accounting. He also works with an organization that helps foster youths who age out of the system without being adopted. He spoke to lawmakers Thursday about the importance of funding programs in every state that help older foster youths get into college, find an apartment and transition into adulthood.
"Anything you need they can help you with. They keep you on their radar like if they were an aunt or uncle or something," Callins said. He said many of the foster youths he's talked to tend to take a bit longer to land on their feet in the real world because of the trauma of coming into foster care.