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Lesson 2.8

Child Protection:
Intervention and foster care

What happens when home isn't safe?

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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.

What is Child Protective Services (CPS)?

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 As with most government data, the latest numbers are always about three years out of date.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.

What is foster care?

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.

Why have foster care placements declined?

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.

Why is the school funding system important for education of foster youth?

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.

How long do kids stay in foster care?

Most placements into foster care are temporary, lasting less than a year before being reunited with a parent or caregiver. But each case is its own story.

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.

What are the obstacles faced by foster youth?

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:

  • Classified with a disability at twice the rate of comparison groups.
  • More likely than other students to change schools during the school year.
  • More likely than the general population of students to be enrolled in the lowest-performing schools.
  • Most likely to drop out and least likely to graduate.

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.

How to help

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.

Last updated February 2023


True or false: the number of students in foster care in California has declined over the long term.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 26, 2023 at 9:56 pm
Useful post on EdSource related to this lesson:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 15, 2022 at 3:38 pm
Foster Youth Education Toolkit

A step-by-step guide to meeting education challenges and improving outcomes for children and youth in foster care and on probation is now available for California schools.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 9:26 pm
On top of the K-12 experience, foster youth who go to college face a whole new load of challenges. There are many universities who do have supportive programs.
user avatar
afrinier February 16, 2020 at 11:45 am
It was fascinating to follow the link about foster youth in my district, and that it compares mine to the greater Los Angeles area.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 20, 2017 at 6:52 pm
A 2016 report from Children Now asks in its title "Are There Too Many Children in Foster Care?" On the way to answering the question (no), the brief explains many sobering statistics about foster care. For example, four-fifths of reported incidents of abuse and neglect do not lead to a child entering foster care. Most entries to foster care are temporary. Most stats about foster care reflect the number of children currently in care, but the number who will spend time in foster care in the course of their childhood is about 14 times as great. According to a survey, a third of girls in foster care report that they are raped while in care. It appears that these rates are basically steady.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 7, 2015 at 9:56 am
Foster Youth Education Toolkit

A new guide to improve education outcomes for children in foster care is available, focused on their most critical needs. The guide is designed to assist school administrators in meeting the goals of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 9, 2015 at 11:07 am
Foster youth got more support this year in California. New legislation expands the definition of "foster youth" to conform to the broader definition used under LCFF, making thousands of additional children eligible for the FYS program. A $10 million budget increase extends FYS support to the nearly two-thirds of the state’s foster children who were previously ineligible for the program.
user avatar
Joanne Bonner Leavitt November 4, 2015 at 12:57 am
My question is about the young people returning to our schools from the many juvenile camps and other correctional institutions. Often, though by no means always, these are children from Foster Care. Should they not also be included in the special populations of LCFF? I was not surprised by your numbers as I follow these for the League of Women Voters. We are doing far too little to support these children at any age. If they are in foster care as little ones, under five, the foster parent's income counts against the child receiving a subsidy for early education programs. This discourages many families with working parents from becoming foster parents and keeps traumatized or otherwise at risk little ones out of the supportive programs they could use. Correcting this should be a priority for DoE. Another priority should be expanding programs for pregnant and parenting teens, especially those parents which are or have been in foster care. A great opportunity to break the cycle. I'll stop here.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:25 am
Kids are kids are kids. YES it is society's obligation to educate and support every child, regardless of their situation. Even illegal immigrants - they are kids - their parents' choices are not their fault. We need to teach them so they have a chance at a good life. Either we pay for education -- or we pay for incarceration.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 4:01 pm
The costs of incarceration (and other costs) are discussed in Lesson 1.4 "The High Social Costs of Educational Failure."
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 23, 2015 at 10:02 pm
Many foster youth - about a third of them in California - live with relatives. As of 2014, living with relatives meant getting by without tutoring or counseling support, which would otherwise be provided. In 2015 Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) introduced legislation to change the eligibility rules. Susan Frey of EdSource provides more information, context and links:
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