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Children are vulnerable. A key role of government is to ensure that there are functioning systems to protect children from harm through neglect or abuse.
This lesson briefly explains the main systems that protect vulnerable children, including Child Protective Services (CPS) and foster care. School communities have a role to play in this important work.
When someone reports a concern to a police officer or other authority, the case is reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) to investigate it and take action. The systems that protect children from harm rely on people speaking up. The system deals with a very large volume of reports. A study in California found that 14% of children born in 2002 were reported for possible maltreatment by the age of five.
Education personnel are the single largest group of reporters of child maltreatment in the USA:
A report of maltreatment is the first step in a process of investigation and response. In California, child welfare services are a county function. On average, statewide, a caseworker responds to an allegation within a few days. The majority of allegations (just over half) are determined to be unsubstantiated, meaning that the caseworker concludes the evidence is insufficient to warrant further action. Of the substantiated cases, the largest number of involve girls and boys under the age of three, in about equal numbers. The main category of maltreatment is neglect.
The child protective system is complex, and varies from place to place. Like any system, it has its own terminology, which can be daunting. It's a human system, consisting of individual people with the difficult job of making hard decisions that deeply affect the lives of children and family members.
Every year, the Children's Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services prepares a Report to Congress with both national and state statistics. As with most government data, the latest numbers are always about three years out of date. According to the 2022 report, about 8.9 of every 1,000 children was a victim of maltreatment in 2019. The rate in California was similar to the national average.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) defines foster care as “a temporary living arrangement for kids whose parents cannot take care of them and whose need for care has come to the attention of child welfare staff. While in foster care, children may live with relatives, foster families or in group facilities.”
As of 2019-20, there were roughly 47,000 kids in foster care in California. This number is dynamic because, in most cases, foster care is temporary. According to AECF, “nearly half of kids who enter the foster care system return to their parent or primary caretaker.”
Foster care is disruptive. During their time in the system, children may be moved from one family or facility to another, often requiring them to switch schools. Foster care is provided by a combination of individual families and group settings. It's hard for learning to be the focus in that kind of chaos.
Over decades, fewer children have been placed into foster care, consistent with long-term strategic goals of many agencies connected with child welfare.
In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act formalized a set of seven measurable goals for child welfare systems, and required an annual report to Congress to assess progress. Reducing the number of placements into foster care was among the goals. The Department of Health and Human Services publishes annual data collected from the states, including California.
The pandemic threw a wrench in the system, because many of the people normally in a position to notice and report maltreatment could not play that role.
California's public education funding system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) directs additional funds to school districts for high-need students, including foster youth. To be clear, LCFF doesn't provide funds directly to foster youth or their families — the funds go to the school district. But it creates a formal reason for the system to take note of foster kids, who can be easily overlooked.
Students (or their caregivers) may qualify for support from other programs, like Social Security.
When foster youth turn 18, they age out of the foster care system. Some teens opt to seek independence from their family earlier than age 18 by pursuing legal emancipation. It's rare. The opposite case exists, too: foster youth have the option to extend their care arrangements until age 21.
Students in foster care face major obstacles. According to The Invisible Achievement Gap, an extensive study of foster care in California, compared to other subgroups of students foster youth were:
A disproportionate fraction of teens in foster care identify as LGBTQ+.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented particular challenges for foster youth, making problems already present within the system worse. Aging out of foster care became scarier than ever in a time of extreme uncertainty, and the transition to virtual schooling was tough for foster kids forced to change homes because of the pandemic conditions.
The California Department of Education maintains a page that documents the rights of foster kids.
Fortunately, there are many ways to support foster children. You could adopt or foster a child. You could donate some time as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for one or more foster kids. There are smaller options, of course; nonprofit organizations are crucial sources of help for foster youth, and they need support.
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