When Carey Sommer entered foster care in California, he left his mom, his high school and his friends. Bounced from home to home, he changed high schools nine times until the disheartened teen finally dropped out.
“I just started to not really care about high school because I figured I’m just going to move anyway–why does it matter?” said Sommer, who was told it would take an extra year and a half to graduate to make up for credits he lost changing schools.
Sommer, 19, is among the roughly 50 percent of the nation’s 500,000 foster kids who won’t graduate from high school, experts say.
Nearly 94 percent of those that 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.
Some members of Congress and advocates are trying to strengthen laws to ensure the child welfare system not only makes sure that foster kids are safe, but that they get a quality education.
“Schools are often the most important source of focus and stability for children in foster care,” said a letter from federal agencies responsible for education and child welfare to state officials as classes were starting this fall.
The letter advised 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. The law, however, lacks any penalties.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., proposed a bill to strengthen the measure and include education officials, in addition to their child welfare counterparts. The bill passed in committee with bipartisan support and is awaiting Senate approval.
At a town hall in October, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., who co-chair the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, stressed that officials should ensure that foster children succeed academically, just as any parent would make sure their child excels at school.
“Many of these children are strong, resilient, smart and hard-working, but we treat them as if they’re broken, and that’s a problem. We have to give them an opportunity to be in a stronger setting,” Landrieu said.
The departments of Education and Health and Human Services will meet with state officials in November to discuss practical ways to implement the law. Among the hurdles that Grassley said that officials around the country face is trying to cut through bureaucracy between two federal agencies, the state and local governments.
Around the country, small-scale efforts are already taking root.