From Barriers to Successful
Collaboration: Public Schools and
Child Welfare Working Together
by Altshuler, Sandra J., Social Work 48, no. 1 (Jan 2003): p.
ISSN: 0037-8046 Number: 276884631
Copyright: NASW, Incorporated Jan 2003
Few mechanisms exist to support successful collaboration between
public schools and child welfare agencies. One unfortunate
consequence is that the children ostensibly being served by either
system often end up receiving inadequate services from both systems.
Focus groups were held with caseworkers, educators, and students to
learn how the two systems can work more collaboratively. This
article reports on the barriers and successful practices identified
by the participants that affect the educational functioning of
students living in foster care. The article concludes with the
participants' recommendations for practices and policies to improve
collaborative efforts between the two systems.
Key words: barriers; child welfare; educational needs; focus groups;
Few mechanisms exist to support successful collaboration between
public child welfare systems and public education systems, despite
the fact that most children living in foster care attend public
schools. Child welfare and public education have different foci and
have had difficulty working collaboratively with each other (Altshuler,
1997; Goren, 1996). Consequently, the children ostensibly being
served by either system often receive inadequate services from both
systems. Can the two systems work collaboratively to support the
needs of the children they serve? What is needed for this to occur?
What barriers exist to prevent successful collaboration? What
changes are needed to support it?
Proponents have advocated for improved linkages between education
systems and social services systems for the past decade (see Behrman
& Center for the Future of Children, 1992; Bowen & Richman, 2002;
Franklin & Allen- Meares, 1997). Some advocates urge school systems
to become the coordinating point for local social services (Cousins,
Jackson, & Till, 1997; Harvey, 1995; Tyack, 1992), whereas others
suggest the need to develop integrated services systems throughout
the local community, in which schools would play an integral role
with other domains (for example, juvenile justice, and health care)
(Corrigan & Bishop, 1997; Rivard, Johnson, Morrissey, & Starrett,
1999; Tapper, Kleinman, & Nakashian, 1997). These proponents also
recognize barriers that have prevented successful accomplishment of
these ideas. Some of the barriers identified include financial
considerations (that is, which system pays for what services),
identification of appropriate clientele (that is, who should receive
which services), disparate goals and objectives among services,
location and coordination of services delivery, and evaluative
Collaborative efforts between child welfare and public education
face similar challenges. As such, it may be considered a microcosm
of the systemic problems of interagency collaboration. This
exploratory study addresses the barriers to collaboration and
successful collaborative practices between child welfare and public
education. Focus groups were held with key constituents the two
systems: child welfare workers, educators, and students living in
foster care. The findings from these groups may offer suggestions
for successful collaboration for other interagency efforts.
Many students living in foster care struggle academically and
socially in school. Compared with other children in similar classes
or normed expectations, children in foster care have weaker
cognitive abilities (Fanshel & Shinn, 1978; Fox & Arcuri, 1980);
have poorer academic performance and classroom achievement,
including grade retention and higher rates of placement into special
education (Goerge, Van Voorhis, Grant, Casey, & Robinson, 1992;
Heath, Colton, & Aldgate, 1994; Iglehart, 1994; Runyan & Gould,
1985; Sawyer & Dubowitz, 1994); have demonstrated inappropriate
school-related behaviors more frequently (Smucker, Kauffman, & Ball,
1996; Wolkind & Rutter, 1973); have poorer attendance records, and
change schools more frequently (Runyan & Gould; Smucker et al.,
Poor educational functioning while in
foster care has led to poorer outcomes of adult functioning. Former
foster children who had not graduated from high school were less
likely than those who did graduate to be employed, maintain stable
housing, have strong leisure interests, feel satisfied with their
lives (Pilling, 1987, cited in Jackson, 1988; Rutter & Giller,
1983), or have higher levels of self-sufficiency, including the
ability to maintain stable housing and full-time employment (Cheung
& Heath, 1994; Stein, 1994). Studies of adult functioning after
foster care have demonstrated the importance of academic success for
employment, self-sufficiency, and self-esteem (Aldgate, Heath,
Colton, & Simm, 1993; Benedict, Zuravin, & Stallings, 1996;
Courtney, Piliavin, Grogan-Kaylor, & Nesmith, 2002; Festinger, 1983;
Wedeven, Pecora, Hurwitz, Howell, & Newell, 1997).
Although research has demonstrated
the importance of supporting education for children in foster care (Altshuler,
1997), research has failed to identify the collaborative barriers
and successful practices that professionals in public education and
public child welfare have experienced. This study was designed to
address that gap by inviting caseworkers, educators, and students in
foster care to discuss the following two research questions: What
are the barriers and successful practices that affect the
educational success of students in foster care? What can public
schools and public child welfare systems jointly do to increase the
educational success of students living in foster care?
I used focus group methodology for this study for two reasons.
First, focus groups allow new ideas to emerge more easily through
the interactions and free-flowing discussions among participants
(Krueger, 1994). Second, focus groups provide a more comfortable
atmosphere for youths to participate in research (Krueger; Morgan &
Krueger, 1993). In addition, separate focus groups are advised when
the key constituents have conflictual relationships (Krueger).
All the participants had some connection to the urban midwest area
in which the research was conducted. The students and educators were
recruited from one middle school in the area. Incentives for
participation were provided at all the focus groups, including food
All seven student participants attended one middle school in central
Illinois. Approximately 400 students attend this school, which has
an ethnic mix of white (60 percent), African American (30 percent),
and Asian American (10 percent) students. The school social work
department identified 10 students in the school currently living in
foster care, all of whom were African American, typifying the
overrepresentation of African American children in foster care
nationwide (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's
Bureau, 1997). The social work department was unaware of any other
students living in foster care at the time this project was
undertaken. The school social worker invited the 10 students
individually to participate in the focus group by explaining the
purpose and rationale for their involvement. Three students
indicated they were not interested in participating in a research
project that was focused on issues about foster care and education.
The remaining students were all African Americans, five boys and two
girls. Two students were in eighth grade, two students were in
seventh grade, and three students were in sixth grade. Three
students were in kinship foster care, and the other four were in
nonrelated family foster care. One student was receiving special
education services for behavioral difficulties. Students chose not
to divulge other placement history, such as reasons for placement or
length of time in foster care.
All 50 faculty members at the same middle school received
invitational letters in their mailboxes describing the purpose of
the project and the focus group. The meeting time was arranged on
the basis of faculty responses. One man and eight women, including
the school social worker and the assistant principal, participated
in the focus group. Three of the female educators were African
American. The average length of teaching experience among the
participants was 15 years. Three of the participants, including the
social worker and administrator, had master's degrees.
The eight caseworkers in this study worked for either the state
public child welfare agency or private, nonprofit agencies providing
child welfare services to the state agency. This sample was created
through t48, no. 1 (Jan 2003): p. 52-63he snowball method, in which
caseworkers in the community known to the researcher were invited to
attend the focus group and to invite other caseworkers as well. The
meeting time was arranged on the basis of caseworkers' needs. The
caseworker group was composed of two African American and six white
women. One woman was also a foster parent. The average length of
casework experience among the women was 10 years. Half the
participants had master's degrees, and half were in the process of
earning their MSW degrees.
Three separate focus groups were held, one for each constituent
group, guided by an interview protocol developed for this project.
Focus group methodology informed the development of the protocols
(Krueger, 1994; Morgan, 1993; Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990) designed
to elicit the opinions of the participants regarding the educational
needs of children in foster care. Using open-ended questions from
the facilitator, all the protocols generally covered five topic
areas: (1) communications and interactions between school and child
welfare personnel; (2) relationships between foster parents and
school and child welfare personnel; (3) the roles of caseworkers and
foster parents in foster students' education; (4) the roles of
educators and foster parents in foster students' lives (outside of
education); and (5) the needs of caseworkers, students, educators,
and foster parents in supporting the educational needs of students
in foster care. The protocol for the student focus group also
included topics regarding their relationships with teachers and
caseworkers. Each focus group meeting lasted approximately 60
minutes. During the focus groups, topical discussions often led to
related issues as the participants initiated topics and ideas with
little prompting from the facilitator. Consequently, the student
focus group met on two separate occasions, because of student
fatigue, to cover all the topics.
The student focus group was audiotaped, and the caseworker and
educator focus groups were videotaped. The tapes were transcribed
verbatim. Themes were developed by coding the data (that is, the
transcripts). Themes are recurring categories of common experiences
that are embedded in the texts. They emerge as part of an iterative,
analytic process in phenomenological research of going from the
whole of the text to its parts and back to the whole again (Diekelmann,
Allen, & Tanner, 1989). The researcher was the first to interpret
the texts. To ensure "bias control," the interpretation was then
evaluated separately by an independent researcher, a caseworker, and
an educator, two of whom were African American. These
interpretations became part of the iterative process to ensure that
the interpretation was accurate and substantiated by the texts (Diekelmann
The themes that emerged in the focus group discussions include the
barriers and successful practices that affect the educational
success of students in foster care, and recommendations from the
participants for successful practices and policies for the future.
Even though the student focus group addressed different issues from
those of the educators and caseworkers (for example, the students
did not discuss the lack of collaborative relationships between the
professionals, but did discuss how they felt about being a student
living in foster care), these issues complement those that emerged
in the professionals' discussions.
Barriers to Educational Success
Focus group participants discussed a myriad of problems that
adversely affect the educational functioning of students living in
foster care. Two major themes emerged: (1) student and teacher
reactions to foster care placements and (2) the adversarial
relationships between the professionals working in public school
systems and child welfare.
Student and Teacher Reactions to Foster Care Placements. Being in
foster care affects both the way students behave in school and
educators' reactions to them. Students discussed the effect of
living in a foster home on their school behavior. Many of the
students noted that they do not express their feelings at their
foster homes and, instead, take out their frustrations and anger at
school. Since being placed in care, students have more behavioral
problems at school, but felt they had no other outlets for
expressing their feelings:
See, sometimes something happens in their homes with their foster
mom. They try to take it out at school and stuff.
Yeah, I used to do that all the time.... I used to be mad, people
used to make me mad, and I used to come to school just to beat
Since [they removed me], I haven't seen my mom for two years.... So
that's mostly why I get in trouble with school, because I get upset
by when they took me from my mom.
Caseworkers also discussed the extra challenges that students living
in foster care face in school. As one caseworker said, "the fact
that he is in foster care is going to impact every single thing that
the child does during the [school] day. The teacher is going to have
to know that."
Students and caseworkers also discussed their belief that simply
being in foster care has negative connotations for the student in
the school setting:
They're going to mark the kid as being a foster child and have
I agree with that. I've had some experiences where the kids come in
[to the school] and they are already labeled because they are a
foster child. So, they're expecting, even if the kid doesn't have
any behavior problems, they're expecting them to have problems just
because they are a foster child.
One student expressed his concern that once teachers know of foster
care status, they attribute any behavioral difficulties to the
parents' problems. "They think you take it from your mom and dad,
and it's like their influence [for] why you are being bad in the
first place." Another student disliked receiving special treatment
from her teacher because of her foster care status:
If I have a book report due and its not finished, Ms. C. will take
me to the hall and she'll just give me special treatment and stuff,
and I really don't like getting special treatment. I want to be
treated just like she treats all the other kids.... And then some of
the kids ask me, "why is Ms. C. always patting you on the back? Why
is she always letting you not do the homework?"
It appears to caseworkers and students that on the basis of foster
care status schools often treat these students differently from
others. Educators did not share this impression of unfairness,
although they did acknowledge the occasional need for differential
treatment. One teacher said: "I think that often, they just need to
be treated like everybody else and not singled out for special
Sometimes though, they may break down
or need a little extra support.
But normal kids at some point of time do the same thing."
Adversarial, Noncollaborative Relationships among Professionals. In
their respective focus groups, both caseworkers and educators
expressed a mutual lack of trust with each other. As one caseworker
stated, "even though we would all deny that there's an adversarial
relationship between the schools and [child welfare], I think there
is." Another caseworker responded, "I don't think anyone would deny
it." Educators expressed a similar frustration: "It just kind of
seems like we're just fighting back and forth." Focus group
participants discussed problems that emerged from the lack of
collaboration between the two systems, including lack of
understanding regarding confidentiality constraints, lack of
communication, perceived lack of caring or commitment to students,
and lack of mutual trust.
Lack of understanding regarding
confidentiality constraints-Educators have felt that caseworkers
withhold vital information, whereas caseworkers have felt that
educators expect them to divulge confidential, nonessential
information. In the focus group, educators expressed their
frustration at being unable to obtain information from caseworkers
in a timely or comprehensive manner, information that they consider
vital to successful educational planning. They disliked learning
about foster care status only when attempting to contact the
students' parents for discipline issues, medical emergencies, or
parent- teacher conferences. One teacher complained that caseworkers
"act like isolated entities." An assistant principal, who works with
students referred for behavioral problems, stated:
I'll call a caseworker and say, "'I'd just like to know what's
happening," and she'll say, "I'll take that to my supervisor." Well,
what does that mean? I never find out. I've actually called the
supervisor and said that I need to notify the [foster] mother and
they'll say, "Well, I can't give you the number." I am not the big
bad wolf. They can call me back and find out that I do work at the
school. I need to find this mom. "Well, she's working." "Can I have
the number?" "No, I can't give it to you."
Caseworkers were equally frustrated with having educators expect
them to share confidential information that they believe is not
needed by school systems. As one caseworker stated:
I was invited to the school staffing for a child having [behavior]
problems, and I got there and it was the principal, school social
worker, the psychologist, her teacher, everyone, and ... they said,
"okay now tell us everything you know about this child." [I told
them], "that's not what I'm here for. We're here to work on
intervention strategies for this child. I can't tell you any of
that, it's all confidential information." It was a horrible
experience but that's just what they thought I was there for, to
tell them everything that they wanted to know.
Another caseworker said that at every staffing, "they want to know
the nitty gritty. They want to know why the kid's [in foster care],
what's happened, natural family, all that information, which I don't
really feel they need to know."
Lack of communication-All the participants in the two focus groups
of professionals highlighted the lack of communication between and
among parties. One of the educators stated, "I find it frustrating
that I don't know who my foster kids are." The school social worker
mentioned that when she contacted the local child welfare office to
find out which students in her building were in foster care, "they
were amazed that I even wanted [to know that]. And what they sent me
was a list of all the middle school-aged kids in the entire county
in foster care."
Both caseworkers and educators perceived that the other
professionals were unwilling to communicate with them. Apparently,
professionals in each system place the responsibility for
communicating on the professionals in the other system. One
I think my biggest beef is when kids are referred for special
education and they're having evaluations completed and the
caseworker is never called. And all of a sudden, here is all their
background information, and it's incomplete or not correct because
the foster parent did not have it, where they could have called
us.... And, I think a lack of communication between the schools and
the caseworker is really difficult.
Educators had similar complaints:
I have had to deal with special education kids. We've gone halfway
through the evaluation process before we've known this kid is in
foster care. And it's very frustrating. And [child welfare
professionals] make no attempt to notify us.
Perceived lack of caring for, or commitment to, students- Neither
educators nor students appeared to believe that caseworkers were
truly involved in the students' lives. One teacher stated simply,
"generally, the caseworkers don't know what's going on." Another
educator felt similarly, "the caseworker very seldom will call and
ask how the student is doing... and if they do come to school, they
don't have a true understanding of what's going on with this child."
The students felt that caseworkers "go through the motions they're
supposed to" without actually getting involved in the students'
lives. One student said that if he was in trouble at school, he
"would rather they call my foster parent. What are they going to
call my caseworker for? What's she going to do? She'll come out here
with a sad look on her face and say, 'A., be good' and I'll say,
'alright,' and she gonna leave."
Caseworkers, on the other hand, felt that schools are not committed
to working with students living in foster care. The caseworkers
expressed their belief that many schools simply do not want these
students in their schools:
They don't want to invest the time or the money for a child who they
think may go home in six months. And so they don't.
Or that he's only going to be here for just a short period of time,
so we [educators] don't have to do anything. The kid will be back
home before it becomes our turn to do anything.
The caseworkers in the focus group also believed that students with
behavioral problems are deliberately excluded from the schools. As
one caseworker succinctly stated, "behavior problems, they want them
somewhere else." Another caseworker said, "when you talk about
behavior problems [in a school], it's like a hot potato: 'How can we
get it to the next person and out of our hands?.'
Mutual distrust-Neither caseworkers nor educators trust each other
to carry out their professional duties toward students in foster
care. Caseworkers do not trust that schools maintain high academic
expectations for students in foster care. One caseworker mentioned
her experiences in talking with teachers about students on her
It's negative, negative, negative about the kid. "Oh, this child is
receiving D's but that's okay because we understand where this child
is coming from." That's all they expect from this child. And, it's
been happening throughout the semester, and yet they haven't done
anything to help that child achieve at a greater level.
Educators expressed their frustration with caseworkers'
They operate as a separate entity. They make assumptions about the
child's progress in school, they make assumptions about what they
can and can't do, they don't ask any questions, they whisk kids in
and out of here, and it's so frustrating.
And they don't ask for any assistance. They'll call and say I am
coming to meet you and we're going to talk about this. And then they
don't show up. Imagine how the child reacts. That really bothers me.
One educator expressed this sentiment of mutual distrust heard in
both focus groups: "It's like we're opposites, instead of working
together for the best interest of the child.
. . . I just feel they don't trust us with any information. They
don't trust us to plan for kids."
Trusting, Collaborative Relationships. Certain schools, not
definable by region- rural or urban setting-or even district, were
experienced as being more welcoming to caseworkers than other
schools. According to caseworkers, these schools "seem to be more
accepting of the caseworker in their role with the child; seem to
give more information, more one-on-one. The principals are always
available. They're willing to work more with the caseworker." Other
caseworkers appeared to take some responsibility for developing
trusting relationships with school systems through how they interact
with the schools.
One caseworker said:
I think that it's a trust-building issue that if indeed there's
information about this child that is going to impact on the safety
or the well-being of the children that he attends school with, then
we have every responsibility to share that information in a way that
is confidential .... I think this is part of a way that you can go
about trusting and working on the relationship with the school.
At the beginning of the school year, another caseworker sent letters
to the teachers of all the students on her caseload, introducing
herself and her role, and asking teachers to contact her.
Other caseworkers emphasized the need to define their roles with the
school systems as a way of building collaborative relationships. As
one caseworker explained:
I think you have to define your role by the way you interact in
[school meetings]. We have to be assertive, and we have to be
informed. But, we have to define that role based on the way we act;
how assertive we can be in how we advocate for our kids. If they
don't think we're interested, and we're just signing a piece of
paper to get out of the room, what in the world are they going to do
to help this kid? So, I think its up to us to define our role when
we go into that room.
Equitable, Sensitive Treatment by Teachers. Participants in all
three focus groups emphasized the need for students in foster care
to be treated in a similar fashion to other students in school,
albeit with compassion and understanding. In supporting their
educational success, teachers highlighted the need to maintain
consistent structure and expectations for both behavioral and
academic performance. The students agreed, mentioning their dislike
for being "singled out" by teachers for special attention, based on
foster care status. Despite the uniform desire for students in
foster care to be treated equitably, all participants also
acknowledged the importance of schools being sensitive to the unique
circumstances of these (and all) students. As one teacher described
her approach in working with students in foster care, "not that they
get special treatment, but always have that in the back of your
mind, so that you know if something happens one day, you know for
that child and that family, there may be some circumstances that you
need to look into before doing something about the kid's behavior."
Caseworkers shared a similar impression of how students in foster
care need to be treated in public school. One caseworker said that
schoolteachers can be "very understanding. They work with the kids
more than the administrators (for example, the deans of student
services or the assistant principals). It seems that they look at
more of the kid, whereas everybody else just looks at the problems.
They see more of the whole child." Students appeared to agree with
that assessment. As one student said, "some teachers know you are in
foster care and they know you have a problem. They do show more
compassion for you. Sometimes they just give you a little leeway."
Students in foster care appeared to not only want to be treated
equally to other students but also wanted their teachers to be
sensitive to their unique needs. When asked what he needed in a
teacher, another student replied simply, "respect me and treat me
like she treats the other kids-give me a break like they get
sometimes, but not always."
Foster Parent Involvement in School
System. Educators and caseworkers noted that students with foster
parents who are involved in their lives and at school succeeded
better educationally than those with foster parents who did not. As
one teacher said, foster parents "just need to get involved
immediately. When the child is placed into their care, they need to
make contact with the school to let us know ... what it is the child
needs, to help us, or if there is a problem, to try to help us
figure out what to do to help that child. But really to get involved
is what [helps] a lot." A caseworker who is also a foster parent
echoed that sentiment:
And me being a foster parent, I see that when the foster parent is
more involved with the school, and they answer the calls of the
school and everything, that it's much easier. The school doesn't
have a problem with that child because they see someone that's
involved in the school, who's there when the child is having
problems and supports them in whatever program that they are trying
to put in place for this child. But when you have the foster parents
that are not involved in the school, that's when the school has
The level of foster parent involvement in the school system appears
to vary widely. The teachers felt that foster parents who treated
the children 11 as their own" were more involved in the school
system. One teacher said, "I found the most successful contacts with
foster parents are those parents who act like the foster kids are
their own kids. They love them like their own, they discipline them
like their own, and they care about them like their own. That's the
Increasing foster parent involvement in the schools may require
extra efforts from both educators and caseworkers (interestingly,
despite a multitude of efforts, this research project was
unsuccessful in its attempts to recruit a group of foster parents).
Schools are not always experienced as warm or welcoming
environments, especially for foster parents of at-risk students
(Outland-- Mitchell & Anderson, 1992). Educators, including school
social workers, are in a pivotal position to alter those experiences
(Kurtz, 1988; Kurtz & Barth, 1989). Caseworkers, too, must support
foster parents more strongly in initiating and maintaining ongoing
contacts with the school system.
Recommendations for the Future
Changes in Laws, Mandates, and Guidelines Regarding Sharing of
Information. Caseworkers and educators discussed the difficulties
they have encountered from attempts to share or receive information.
Educators appeared to understand the legal and professional
constraints that caseworkers face regarding confidential
information, but remain frustrated in their attempts to work
collaboratively. Caseworkers expressed similar frustrations and
suggested that public child welfare agencies should provide
guidelines that "clearly spell out ... what to share and what not
to." As one caseworker explained:
When we don't share certain types of information, and we have an
incident in the school, then the parents, the school board will ...
say, "why wasn't this information shared?" I think that is a really
legitimate beef, and I think that we have to deal with that. [We
need to] know what types of information to share and who to share it
Clear, consistent guidelines can allow caseworkers to share
confidential information more freely and provide them with written
explanations for when they cannot share information. For example,
the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services recently
issued a report that includes guidelines for information sharing
with schools (McDonald, 1997). Such guidelines can support the
caseworkers' ability to share needed information in a timely manner.
Requirements regarding confidentiality stem from federal and state
statutes, agency regulations, and professional mandates. On the one
hand, strategies are being designed for statutes and agency
regulations to address simultaneously the need to protect privacy
and the need to improve information sharing. For example, some state
legislatures have passed laws allowing information sharing among
interdisciplinary groups, whereas some agencies have developed
specific interagency agreements (Behrman & Center for the
Future of Children,1992; Hobbs, 1991). On the other hand, because
confidentiality is a clearly stated professional mandate for social
workers (see Sec. 1.07, NASW, 2000), changing statutes and agency
policies may exacerbate the confusion that workers already have
identified. The challenge facing professionals in both systems is to
learn how to collaborate effectively with other professionals
without breaking the trust with their own clients.
Individual and Cross- Training Needs.
Caseworkers were quite vocal about training needs for professionals
in both systems. They suggested that foster parents and caseworkers
need training on education policies and laws. As one caseworker
said, "the [foster parents] and the caseworkers need to know what
the educational law is so they can advocate for their child, when
they don't see their child getting what they need." Another
caseworker agreed: "I feel like I need more training as far as the
educational needs. I don't feel adequate enough at all to advocate
for a child and say to the school that you have to provide this by
law because I don't know that." Caseworkers agreed that foster
parents need that training also, since they are the ones who should
be involved with the school systems on a regular basis.
Caseworkers also suggested that teachers receive training specific
to the needs of students living in foster care. As one caseworker
stated, "it would be helpful if they can get training and
understanding that these kids do have the potential and that they
also have some emotional problems coming into the system that is
going to carry over in the school. And how they are going to
effectively deal with that .... Basically, they just need training
on the issues of foster children."
Two caseworkers suggested that
cross-training professionals would be most beneficial. One
caseworker suggested holding joint caseworker-educator trainings, at
which the professionals can come together and share information with
each other about the two systems. Another caseworker suggested that
school support personnel shadow a caseworker or investigator,
because I don't think they have any concept of what caseworkers do.
And the horrendous job that they have trying to keep all these
plates spinning in the air.... I think a week assigned to a
particular investigator, a particular caseworker would do so much to
open up the lines of communication and empathy. We need some sort of
respect, a reciprocal respect for each other's professional job.
Because it isn't there.
To develop that type of reciprocal respect, caseworkers should
shadow teachers as well. Joint and cross-training programs for
caseworkers and educators are being developed (see, for example,
Cormier, 1994). Such training has been suggested for other
conflictual systems, such as child welfare and battered women's
programs, to increase collaborative efforts (Beeman, Hagemeister, &
Edleson, 1999). Joint training and cross-training are two approaches
that would serve the dual purposes of increasing knowledge and
information about the respective systems and increasing respect,
communication, and empathy between the professionals working in the
Supports in School
Participants in all three focus
groups discussed the importance of having schools provide extra
support, like one-on-one tutoring, for students in foster care. The
educators discussed their particular school's team approach to
education, which they believed helped at-risk students succeed
because an entire team of educators was working with individual
students. The educators also highlighted the extensive array of
social services available to at-risk students in their school. "We
have a lot of support; you know, we have three counselors, we have a
great social worker, special education staff. We have a lot of
people who care." They stated unequivocally that, to succeed
educationally, students in foster care need school systems that
provide a wide array of social services, including social work
services. Caseworkers appeared to agree with the educators'
sentiments. One caseworker identified the need for "more educational
services: tutoring, special help ... fun activities that relate to
school life." However, she also mentioned that "it would be helpful
if the schools would let us know what programs are available within
the school, such as after school tutoring.... Whatever they have in
the school that would help [the students] academically, I think
would be helpful to be communicated to the caseworkers." Programs
such as tutoring, mentoring, social skills training, and peer
counseling in school have all demonstrated their effectiveness in
helping at-risk students (Bein, 1999; Durlak, 1995).
Focus group participants also
identified the need for a supportive person in the school system.
Many social agencies and school systems, including the one involved
in this study, use mentors for supporting at-risk students. Mentors
are not necessarily school staff, but the educators in this study
suggested the innovative concept of having teachers in the school
provide mentoring for all the students in foster care in their
school. One educator said:
A lot of [the students in foster care] have problems that may seem
small to us but they have to live with them. And they need someone
they can trust that they can come and talk to and tell them about
their problems. I think we have a large population of foster kids
and they need somebody here just for them.
Having a teacher as a mentor would provide these students with one
person in the school system on whom they can rely and who "knows the
school system." The teacher can help students negotiate the demands
of the school, which would be particularly useful for new students
and students who change schools frequently. A recent study of
mentoring highlighted its effectiveness in helping children living
in foster care (Rhodes, Haight, & Briggs, 1999).
Maintaining Students in Their Home School
All three constituent groups
discussed the detrimental effects of changing schools on the
students' ability to succeed educationally. Students discussed the
difficulties encountered in changing schools, including the need to
"prove yourself" and "gain respect" with peers and teachers. The
students noted that their ability to perform well in the classroom
is affected by either their worries of being moved unexpectedly or
experiencing the "new student syndrome" repeatedly. Caseworkers
discussed their frustrations with what they perceive as a lack of
commitment to foster students by schools, because schools "know that
if they wait long enough, these kids will be gone." Teachers
discussed their frustration with a child welfare system that places
and removes children in what appears to them as a random process.
One teacher mentioned a situation in which the school was told that
a student was abruptly moved to a town more than 50 miles away
because no foster homes were in the local area. Yet, two weeks
later, a new student from that same distant town was placed in
foster care in the local area and enrolled in the school.
Making a commitment to keep the child
in the same school, regardless of movements within the foster care
system, requires a tremendous collaborative effort by both systems.
Child welfare systems need to put more effort into locating and
supporting resources in local communities. School systems need to
commit themselves to providing educational opportunities to these
students, who often present with behavioral and emotional
difficulties. Both systems may need to negotiate arrangements for
transportation, including the responsibility for payment of such
services. Despite the challenges this idea presents to both systems,
as one teacher said, "at the same time that they have to move foster
homes, staying in the same school can only help."
More Proactive Planning in Anticipating Student Needs. Students,
caseworkers, and educators felt strongly that proactive planning
would alleviate many of the problems previously discussed.
Caseworkers and educators agreed that schools should be notified
immediately when a student in foster care will be attending that
school. One innovative idea suggested by caseworkers was to have a
formal education plan for students living in foster care:
There's a plan for [students in] special education. There's a plan
for kids with aggressive behavior. Why shouldn't there be a plan in
place for these children who are coming in [to the school] because
they are in care?
Another caseworker expanded on this idea: [We need to create] a
joint plan of what the caseworker is responsible for and what that
school is going to do to meet this child's needs. Everybody needs to
sit down even for half an hour the first day the kid is there. [The
foster child] needs to be part of the plan in the beginning also....
They're always left out of everything.
If these meetings were held routinely, collaborative efforts between
the professionals in both systems likely would be enhanced. School
personnel would be less frustrated with the lack of initial
notification about a child's needs, and caseworkers would be less
frustrated in trying to determine whom they need to contact in the
school system. As one student commented on the idea of caseworkers
and schools sharing information, "that way, [the school] knows all
about me, without me having to tell it all the time." Including the
child in such a plan can only increase the likelihood of success.
Caseworkers, educators, and students offered their ideas about
specific barriers, successful practices, and recommendations for
change for supporting the educational needs of students living in
foster care. The core difficulty can also become the core solution:
changing an adversarial relationship to a collaborative one.
Collaborative challenges faced by child welfare and public education
systems are simply a microcosm of the systemic problems of
interagency collaboration. Systems such as battered women's
treatment, substance abuse, and public welfare would benefit from
improving collaborative efforts with child welfare and public
education. The findings from this project may offer suggestions for
successful collaboration in other interagency efforts.
Public schools and child welfare agencies must begin to work
together to support students' educational functioning. Professionals
in both systems appear eager to work together more collaboratively,
but need to resolve the historical mistrust. Schools of social work
can help by teaching their students ways to break down the chasms
that separate the various professionals. Administrators in both
child welfare and education can help by creating systemic change
through a commitment to joint planning and goal setting. Individual
workers in both systems can help by committing themselves to working
collaboratively and overcoming the mistrust that keeps them apart.
School social workers, in particular, are in a unique position to
provide a bridge between the two worlds. School social workers can
"speak the same language" as caseworkers, and they know the
educational language that permeates school systems.
Although, as one caseworker mentioned, education may not be the top
priority for child welfare workers initially, it is apparent from
the focus group discussions that public schools may need to provide
more than educational services. It is interesting to note that the
participants primarily focused their discussions on what changes can
be made in school systems rather than in child welfare agencies.
Clearly, the school is seen as a potential anchor for a child whose
life has been uprooted. The stability and security of a familiar
school system can help these children weather the storm of foster
care placement, but only if the key participants involved make an
active commitment to collaborating with each other, truly in the
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Sandra J. Altshuler
Sandra J. Altshuler, PhD, ACSW, LCSW, is associate professor,
School of Social Work, Eastern Washington University, 203 Senior
Cheney, WA 99004; e-mail: email@example.com. The author
her gratitude to Susan Evans, school social worker, and Dr. Carol
Stack, principal, at Jefferson Middle School for their support and
collaborative work on this project, and to the faculty, caseworkers,
and students who participated in this project. The author also
Professor Sandie Kopels and Dr. John O'Donnell for their invaluable
feedback on drafts of this article.
Original manuscript received August 18, 1999
Final revision received October 31, 2000
Accepted November 13, 2000
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