WHERE FOSTER CARE MEETS SPECIAL EDUCATION

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The Winter 2006-2007 issue of Child Welfare Watch, published jointly by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and City Limits’ sister organization, The Center for an Urban Future, was released today. This issue of the ongoing project focuses on the variety of ways children and families with special needs interact with city and state agencies. The report describes the impact of a longstanding dispute that has left children and families without the respite care, in-home assistance and other respectful family supports that can help make it possible for young people with disabilities to live fulfilling lives. The report goes on to find that children with disabilities are sometimes placed in foster care because authorities fail to provide services that would make it possible for them to stay with their families. What’s more, some young people with disabilities age out of foster care only to languish in nursing homes or other institutions without city or state agencies advocating for them. This 13th edition of CWW also explores new, effective advocacy efforts launched on behalf of the many foster children who rely on special education services. An estimated 4,700 city foster children are enrolled in special education. But just one in four foster care and preventive agencies under contract with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services have education specialists on staff who can help parents and foster parents advocate for children’s educational services. Below are the report’s recommendations. To view the entire report, click here.

Recommendations and Solutions proposed by Child Welfare Watch

In this issue of the Watch, we address some of the thorniest problems faced by public officials managing child and family policy. These include access to — and the quality of – special education; provision of supports for young people with disabilities; reform of laws and policies guiding adoption; and the elusive coordination of systems and funding streams that reach across multiple levels of government. In an attempt to distill solutions for some of the most pressing needs, the Child Welfare Watch advisory board offers the following recommendations:

1. THE SPITZER AND BLOOMBERG ADMINISTRATIONS MUST FULLY INTEGRATE SUPPORT SERVICES FOR CHILDREN WITH DEVELOPMENTAL AND EMOTIONAL DISABILITIES WHO ARE ENGAGED WITH THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM.

There are hundreds of New York foster children with developmental disabilities and probably thousands more in families investigated each year by child protective services. Unfortunately, many do not receive the federal- and state-funded support services for which they are eligible.

Sometimes, children with disabilities are placed in foster care because child welfare authorities and preventive family support agencies fail to organize and coordinate the services that would make it possible for them to stay with their families. Children with disabilities already in foster care often don’t have access to the breadth of support services received by children whose parents and state-funded service providers know how to press for excellent care. These services include homecare and other one-on-one staff supports, respite care programs, transportation, special equipment and programmatic services such as recreation, parent outreach and education, life skills training and, for older teens and young adults, job placement and supports.

What’s more, some young people with disabilities have aged out of foster care only to languish in nursing homes or other institutions without attention being given to their social interests or educational needs.

Overcoming these systemic failures will require extensive, high-level collaboration between the state’s Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD), which manages Medicaid-funded support services for people with developmental disabilities, and the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which oversees the child welfare system. While the relationship between these two agencies has been fraught with litigious conflict, a new gubernatorial administration may help put that aside. City Hall and the Spitzer administration should establish a joint working group and press for a resolution.

Every foster child with developmental disabilities should have ready access to wraparound support services and educational advocacy. They must also receive careful planning support from case managers or consultants with expertise in both the OMRDD and special education systems. Many young people need long-term, focused planning that will enable them to move into community residential settings that don’t restrict their social lives or limit their educational and employment opportunities. Similarly, every effort must be made to provide in-home family support services in order to prevent the placement of children with disabilities in foster care simply because of inadequate resources. New York State has a wealth of services available to people with disabilities, but it takes work to align them with each individual and family. At a policy and program level, this will include the following:

• Adequate funding and new, coordinated administrative structures designed to achieve these goals could be worked out between the executive leadership of OMRDD and ACS. As the city child welfare agency becomes increasingly oriented toward the coordination of supportive resources for families, its executive leadership and frontline staff must do more to help families gain access to the long-term supports OMRDD brings to tens of thousands of New York families.

• State- and city-funded nonprofit provider agencies that offer both child welfare and developmental disabilities services should be given incentives by OMRDD and ACS to create small teams of workers dedicated to handling cases that traverse the artificial boundaries imposed by different funding streams and bureaucratic necessities. ACS should direct families and children to those organizations that prove they can do this work well.

• In addition, ACS should provide its child protective specialists with easy access to clinical specialists in developmental disabilities services, much as they have access today to specialists in substance abuse, domestic violence and mental health.

The InterAgency Council of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Agencies has produced a more detailed set of recommendations that, if followed, would help move OMRDD and ACS beyond the stalemate of litigation and toward desperately needed cross-system collaboration.

2. ACS AND ITS CONTRACT AGENCIES SHOULD TRAIN PARENTS AND FOSTER PARENTS TO BECOME ASSERTIVE ADVOCATES FOR CHILDREN’S SPECIAL EDUCATION NEEDS.

Children engaged with the child welfare system are far more likely to need special education services than those who are not—but far too often, the services they receive don’t fit their needs. Frequently, a child needs an advocate to ensure that an appropriate education plan is put in place and followed.

Attorneys in nonprofit organizations and officials at ACS have begun to advance a number of small-scale efforts to improve special education advocacy for children in foster care and among families taking part in preventive services. They have learned important lessons—and witnessed the unmatched value of trained parents acting as advocates for their own children. In situations where foster parents are able to advocate alongside parents, they are able to prepare the ground for ongoing oversight of services long after the family is reunified.

ACS could significantly boost efforts to train and support parents in educational advocacy by collaborating with existing legal assistance programs, nonprofit contract agencies and other training projects, including agencies funded by the federal government to provide information, training and support to families of children with disabilities, such as Advocates for Children of NYC, Resources for Children with Special Needs, Sinergia/ Metropolitan Parent Center and United We Stand in Brooklyn.

In addition, the city’s Department of Education needs to vastly improve its communication with parents and caregivers—including foster parents—about what special education services they are entitled to receive and how to obtain them.

3. ACS-FUNDED FOSTER CARE AND FAMILY SUPPORT AGENCIES SHOULD EMPLOY EDUCATION SPECIALISTS.

Special education without a parent or advocate is hit or miss, and sometimes a dumping ground for children who need educational and other supports to succeed in school. With an estimated 30 percent of foster children in special education programs, the city—technically the guardian of all foster children—and the nonprofit agencies overseeing foster homes and services, must have capable specialists on staff to provide educational advocacy and oversight. These specialists must be trained by experienced advocates who are knowledgeable not only about special education laws and regulations but also about best practices in special education and effective advocacy strategies.

Increasing the number of education specialists costs money, but the expenses invested here have payoffs in both the short and long term. When a young person returns home after spending time in foster care, the quality of his or her school placement has a large impact on behavior and stability. Agencies that supply strong educational advocacy have seen reductions in the number of children who return to care after going home to their parents, so this is a valid purpose for reinvestment of funds saved through cost reductions in the larger foster care system. And of course, in the long term, success in school relates directly to stability and economic success as an adult.

4. STATE LEGISLATORS AND THE SPITZER ADMINISTRATION, WITH SUPPORT FROM THE BLOOMBERG ADMINISTRATION, SHOULD DRAFT AND PASS OPEN ADOPTION LEGISLATION.

Often, adoption involves the final severing of ties between a child and his or her family. But when a child has longstanding relationships with siblings, parents or relatives, the finality of this arrangement is not always desirable. Many older foster children shy away from adoption because of this potential loss of contact—and half of the city’s foster children who have adoption as a goal are 10 years of age or older.

In New York, parents who voluntarily surrender a child can make a legally enforceable post-adoption contact agreement with the adoptive parents. But this only covers some of the many foster children adopted each year. Others must rely on informal agreements—or no agreement at all.

Other states have broader open adoption laws that allow birth families to work with adoptive families, mediators and the courts to define the connections they want with their child after he or she has been adopted. These can range from allowing the child simply to know who his or her birth parent is, to agreeing to letters, photos or phone contact, to having scheduled visits. Court-enforced open adoption cements the agreement and can make foster youth and their birth families more comfortable in choosing adoption.

– CWW Advisory Board

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