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From Barriers to Successful Collaboration: Public Schools and
Child Welfare Working Together
by Altshuler, Sandra J., Social Work 48, no. 1 (Jan 2003): p. 52-63

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; foster care

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 approaches.

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., 1996).

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 and drinks.


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.

Data Analysis

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 et al.).


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 people up.

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 negative stereotypes.

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 attention.

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 caseworker stated:

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 caseload:

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' unreliability:

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."

Successful Practices

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 problems.

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 difference."

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 with.

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 two systems.

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 best interests of the children with whom they work.


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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 Hall,
Cheney, WA 99004; e-mail: saltshuler@mail.ewu.edu. The author expresses
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 thanks
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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