Disregarded: How “Othering” Harms Students in the Foster System
Inaccurate perceptions about youth and parents involved in the foster system have negative consequences for educational achievement, resulting in disparate access to resources, poor treatment of youth in both the education and foster systems, and impermanence and instability, all of which perpetuate harm.
Those of us who work with students in the foster system know that they experience the kinds of educational outcomes that no community would willingly accept for their own children. The best-known study of the long-term outcomes of adolescents in the foster system found that just 3 percent of the students it surveyed went on to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 26, and a recent study showed that in New York City, just a quarter of young people in the foster system get a high school degree in four years.
Those of us who work with students in the foster system know that they experience the kinds of educational outcomes that no community would willingly accept for their own children.
When a young person with foster system experience graduates from college, we reflexively fête them for their resilience in the face of these enormous odds. This is a fine impulse, but as Professor Kenyon Lee Whitman, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada who was himself in the foster system, writes, “[c]elebrating the resilience of foster youth is not a problem, but not interrogating the systems in place that require them to be resilient, is.” When we elevate the one-quarter of students in the system who graduate from high school in New York City, or the 3 percent that graduate from college, without also looking for what happened to the 75 or 97 percent who didn’t, we are sending the implicit message that those other students weren’t also worthy of success. Even as we acknowledge the incredible skills and qualities of those students who thrive within systems designed without any regard for their long-term success, we must also consider what happened to the others.
In this commentary, we will explore how the othering of students and families by the foster and education systems contributes to a society-wide failure to support their educational goals. While we explore othering as one cause of the problem, we acknowledge that there are larger culprits of racism and economic and political disenfranchisement that all together contribute to the experiences of young people in the foster system. We’ll highlight how both the education and foster systems inadequately serve students they are responsible for and outline how seeing young people in their full humanity and giving them true power within these systems are essential first steps in ensuring that students in the foster system have the educational experiences and outcomes they deserve.
Even as we acknowledge the incredible skills and qualities of those students who thrive within systems designed without any regard for their long-term success, we must also consider what happened to the others.
Our Background and Perspective
Our perspectives on how the education and foster systems fail young people are informed by our professional experiences working with students impacted by these systems. Chantal Hinds is an education attorney turned policy researcher who started her career working for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. Before becoming a policy entrepreneur at Next100, she worked to support the educational needs of students in the foster system in New York City. Michael Zink is the founder and executive director of At the Table, a New York City-based one-on-one nonprofit tutoring organization that works with current and aspiring college students with foster system experience. Michael previously led the education department at one of New York City’s larger foster care agencies. Combined, we have spent over sixteen years trying to understand and fill the education gaps experienced by youth in the foster system.
We’ve come to understand othering as a unifying theme that we believe explains much of the inequitable and unacceptable education outcomes and experiences of youth in the foster system. As Chantal explained in a prior commentary, “[o]thering happens when one group creates distance between themselves and another group based on value-judgements about perceived traits.” This distance or separation has real effects and consequences. For one, othering can be a way of excusing one’s own failure to feel concern for or offer assistance to members of a group, or of justifying a societal failure to care for the group’s needs. It is hard for anyone to confront the reality of being complicit in a broken or harmful system; it gets easier to avoid this confrontation if you can create distance between yourself and the people the system harms by perceiving them as being inherently difficult, broken, malicious, or in some way responsible for their own plight.
But this pattern of othering is more than just a coping mechanism for participants in bad systems: it also creates a structure that permits decisions and policies that fail to honor the full experiences, abilities, and capabilities of members of othered groups—and few groups are more reliably “othered” than youth and families in the foster system.
Young people in the foster system experience a bizarre duality of stereotypes and treatments. On the one hand, they are perceived as “broken kids,” being highly at-risk, traumatized, and in need of a clinical approach and services. On the other hand, they are treated as “bad kids” and blamed for a wide range of behaviors that flow directly from their experiences or the failures of adults; their responses to trauma are interpreted as malicious or violent tendencies, their mistrust of systems misunderstood as noncompliance, and their disrupted education labeled as a failure to make academic progress, or even as a lack of potential.
Young people in the foster system experience a bizarre duality of stereotypes and treatments. On the one hand, they are perceived as “broken kids,” being highly at-risk, traumatized, and in need of a clinical approach and services. On the other hand, they are treated as “bad kids” and blamed for a wide range of behaviors that flow directly from their experiences or the failures of adults….
The parents of young people in the foster system are also othered in and excluded from the educational decision-making process for their children, primarily by some school staff who lack knowledge of their parental rights, but who seem to take pride in acting as gatekeepers between the child and a parent they deem unfit—often without even knowing them. Between the two of us, the authors of this commentary have had countless interactions with school staff who have confidently told us that parents of young people in the foster system were not legally entitled to access their children’s records without a court order (not true), or shared ugly inferences about the motivations, capacities, and home lives of parents who were simply trying to fulfill their right and responsibility to make educational decisions with their children. In many such cases, the children were imminently returning home to their parents, and the school’s obstinacy only served to make this transition more difficult. Here, as in so many instances that we will explore throughout this piece, stereotypes and assumptions took precedence over the real needs and rights of students and their families.
“Broken Kid”: Mental Health Treatment
One way the othering and “broken kid” narrative leads to decisions and treatment that fails to honor the full experiences of youth in the foster system is the disproportionate number of mental health diagnoses and use of psychotropic medications1 on these young people. A recent literature review noted higher rates of mental health diagnoses for youth in the foster system as compared to their peers who weren’t in the foster system. These diagnoses related both to the circumstances of their entry into the system as well as their experience of placement instability within the system itself. The same article also notes that the high rates of mental health diagnoses could be manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of trauma youth experienced upon entry into the system and experiences within the system.
A Texas study presented at a recent American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition found that psychotropic medication usage was two to twenty-seven times more prevalent among youth in the foster system than their counterparts who weren’t in the foster system. These psychotropic medications included antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and stimulants, among other classes of medication. Youth in the system with serious mental health diagnoses who had been prescribed psychotropic medications have stated that what they really needed was help for the trauma they experienced prior to and in the foster system.
In a Mercury News documentary, Professor Adriane Fugh-Berman noted, “antipsychotics are being used as a kind of chemical restraint and although they’re being used to treat, what’s called disruptive behavior for example, really they’re not treating a psychiatric condition—they’re really being used as sedatives.” We have found this to be true in our experiences, wherein foster parents and teachers call for the foster care agency to assess youth for medication because they’re hyperactive or otherwise not conforming to a particular behavioral standard. These are not necessarily benign or helpful requests. With limited research on the use of antipsychotic medications in children and significant side effects that accompany sedation—including significant weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol and more—there are real consequences from these decisions for how a young person shows up at school. Many students in the foster system have told us they were unable to stay awake and participate in school because of the side effects of medication. Not only are these students being sedated and restrained behaviorally, they’re being sedated and excluded from their own education.
The way mental health treatment is approached for youth in the foster system who have experienced very difficult circumstances does not center the experiences, needs, and capabilities of the youth themselves. While we are not mental health professionals, in our experiences, we have seen medication used to mask behavior that is symptomatic of deep pain instead of long-term skill-building mental health supports that could help youth better contextualize their experiences, self-regulate, and ultimately heal from their trauma. But that type of intervention would require a significant financial investment and require professionals working with youth to learn how to identify with a young person’s humanity and their experiences over their behaviors—an investment, however worthwhile, that few have made.
While we are not mental health professionals, in our experiences, we have seen medication used to mask behavior that is symptomatic of deep pain instead of long-term skill-building mental health supports that could help youth better contextualize their experiences, self-regulate, and ultimately heal from their trauma.
“Bad Kid”: School Discipline
While young people face clinicalized treatment in the foster system, they face punitive and exclusionary treatment when they come to school. For example, in Washington State during the 2018–19 school year, students in the foster system were over 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers who weren’t in the system. They were also excluded from school for more days. Even more startling, according to a recent report from Advocates for Children of New York, during the 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19 school years combined, students in the foster system received long-term suspensions (six to 180 days) at more than five times the rate of New York City students overall.
Many of the most draconian suspensions for students in the foster system come from schools whose primary objective is to remove the student permanently from the building. Although students with disabilities can’t legally be given lengthy suspensions for behaviors related to their disabilities, we have sat face-to-face with school staff as they’ve succeeded at doing just that. In one case, a student with a disability accidentally ran into an assistant principal in the hallway, causing her mild ear pain. The school demanded a six-month suspension—an effective removal for the rest of the student’s middle school career. While advocates were able to reduce the length of the suspension, school staff were still able to effectively exclude this student from their building, knowing that for this student in the foster system, there wasn’t enough opposition on the other side to push back against their agenda.
The extreme disproportionality in school discipline rates for students in the foster system should be cause for alarm among any group of students. These disciplinary disparities are further evidence of decisions made from a distance, grounded in an “othered” view of these students. Many students in the foster system have challenging life experiences that call for support that isn’t punitive and filled with rejection, but support that centers their emotional and behavioral needs first. A system that is more likely to approach youth in the foster system punitively means that students don’t receive the true social–emotional and restorative behavioral support they need, and that they are missing out on needed academic instruction and support to make academic progress, further risking negative educational outcomes.
A system that is more likely to approach youth in the foster system punitively means that students don’t receive the true social–emotional and restorative behavioral support they need….
Othering in Access to Schools, Programs, and Services
Our education system functions largely on the assumption that a parent or caregiver will navigate the system for their child. New York City, for example, uses a byzantine school application process that effectively reserves the best schools to the students whose parents are most adept at navigating the system—as evidenced by the many educational consultants, available for hire, that help parents maneuver through the high school application process. Across the country, access to many after school programs and all special education services require an active and involved parent or caregiver to find, apply, and consent for these programs and services, and sometimes to do monitoring and advocacy when those services are not given with quality and consistency. This presents a challenge for children and youth in the foster system whose parents2 are oftentimes excised from their children’s academic lives, even though, in the majority of cases, they still retain their rights to make educational decisions for their children. While foster parents may play this role, a parent should play this role.
On the other hand, youth themselves are sometimes excluded from certain programs or services because of a requirement for familial involvement. Students who are independent by virtue of having been in the foster system can’t access federal PLUS loans, for instance, because these loans must be co-signed by parents. Here in New York, some organizations that offer resources to low-income students have family interviews as a mandatory part of their intake process and require family buy-in as a condition of participation, disfavoring or altogether excluding students who are placed with foster families on a temporary basis.
An education system that favors parents as navigators or advocates in accessing student programs or asserting student rights will always leave youth behind who don’t have the assumed family structure. When schools and school-adjacent programs assume a certain family type, they inherently other and exclude certain students whose lives and experiences are different.
An education system that favors parents as navigators or advocates in accessing student programs or asserting student rights will always leave youth behind who don’t have the assumed family structure.
The Harm of Instability in School and Foster Placements
National rates of school instability for students in the foster system are troubling. According to data from the American Bar Association’s Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, 31 to 75 percent of youth in the foster system change schools upon placement in the system. Additionally, 25 to 34 percent of 17–18-year-olds experienced five or more school changes while in the foster system. While many students in the foster system experience school changes, these changes may not be borne equally by all students. A 2016 Colorado study found that Black students changed schools more often than other races and ethnicities. This study also found that increased school changes led to decreased odds of earning a high school diploma and increased odds of leaving school altogether or earning a high school equivalency diploma.
School changes have continued to occur3 despite federal laws4—the oldest having been in effect for nearly fifteen years—requiring child welfare agencies to ensure students remain in their schools of origin when in their best interests. States still have challenges maintaining school stability for youth in their foster systems. Why, despite federal requirements and the known harm caused by school changes, do youth in the foster system continue to have these experiences?
School changes have continued to occur despite federal laws—the oldest having been in effect for nearly fifteen years—requiring child welfare agencies to ensure students remain in their schools of origin when in their best interests.
While lack of awareness of the law and foster parent or agency convenience are part of the problem, a lack of true understanding of the experiences of students who have these sudden, and sometimes frequent, changes seems to be another important contributing factor. Data tells a compelling story about the impacts of changes to school placements, but the devastating effect of these kinds of outcomes should be obvious to anyone even without data. If this has never happened to you, then imagine for just a moment that in the middle of a school year, you were taken from your family and placed in the foster system, and at the same time, and without warning, you were enrolled in a new school. You don’t know anyone in the building, you have no friends to look forward to seeing, and the teachers are covering almost completely different material than you were learning the week before.
Now imagine that it happened again, and again. How would this make you feel about going to school? How would it impact you socially? How would it affect your trust in adults, and your hope for the future?
Conceptually, this isn’t difficult to understand, so why is it so difficult to keep children in their schools? We have both worked with foster care providers to put common-sense planning and transportation solutions in place that have prevented numerous young people from having their school placements disrupted when they changed foster placements. With laws mandating school placement preservation on one hand, and the solvability of this issue on the other, one explanation for the severity of this problem could be a lack of true understanding of the experiences of students in the foster system.
We believe that if the people who created these systems had ever put themselves in the shoes of the young people experiencing disruptive school placement changes, they would not be happening at anywhere near this rate. For example, Dr. Brenda Triplett, director of educational achievement and partnerships at Children’s Aid Society, one of New York City’s foster care agencies, has worked to help New York City Department of Education staff do just that. She trains superintendents and their staff about what it’s like for parents and children to be in the child welfare and foster systems. She highlights the biases within the system and the impact of trauma of the system itself. She helps school staff understand the full experiences of parents and children involved in the foster system and helps to break down preconceived notions of who these parents and families are. Her training and work help to create empathy and understanding that inform staff’s actions when they encounter these families.
Where do we go from here?
As we’ve demonstrated, youth in the foster system face enormous barriers to academic success. Instead of being valued within the context of a family relationship, a system is substituted for the family, and that very system shirks its responsibility or is unable to appropriately care for them. The young people themselves are blamed for the fallout through punitive treatment or clinical interventions (such as overmedication) aimed at their perceived deficits. Centering real young people, not an idea about who they are and what they might need, has power to create real change. We believe the outcomes can be changed beginning with changing individual beliefs, perceptions, and ultimately practices.
Foster system staff must better understand the circumstances that young people in its system face by meeting them where they are and choosing compassion and support over medication and sedation. Youth in the foster system must be valued for who they are, not just what has happened to them, and their life goals and dreams championed. School staff must do the same: education institutions have a unique role to play in supporting students in the foster system, and can be a uniquely stabilizing force in a student’s life.
Youth in the foster system must be valued for who they are, not just what has happened to them, and their life goals and dreams championed.
Schools must become centers of support for students in the foster system, and staff must get to know them and understand their wants and needs. Increased awareness and understanding is possible through data awareness and transparency and increased staff training for school staff, like Dr. Triplett’s trainings mentioned above. For example, California’s education department collects and publicly shares data about the educational experiences of youth in the foster system—including discipline rates and school stability rates. Indiana’s education department releases an annual report with data about students in the foster system including their graduation rates, discipline rates, and retention and promotion rates. California has used its data to highlight district best practices for working with students in the foster system. Indiana has created a remediation plan to address the challenging outcomes and experiences for students in its foster system.
Schools and foster systems can also provide support that centers the young person and their needs. For example, FosterEd, in California and Arizona, places educational liaisons within schools to provide support for youth in the foster system. These liaisons work with individual students and other key adults in their lives to help them achieve their goals. Similarly, in New York City, Fair Futures embeds education specialists and coaches within child welfare agencies to advocate for the needs of students in the foster system. The specialists and coaches work with young people to identify academic and career goals and a path towards achieving them.
In addition to the work that education and foster systems must do, young people and parents alike must have a meaningful seat at the table in informing government systems and holding them accountable.
In addition to the work that education and foster systems must do, young people and parents alike must have a meaningful seat at the table in informing government systems and holding them accountable. Students should lead the way in identifying problems and solutions in the education and foster systems. Those with the power to make legislative and policy changes need to learn, first-hand, from students and parents with lived expertise, and understand how systems have failed them, what needs to be improved, and how. More than this, people with lived experience need to be in leadership roles, leading change, within government systems, nonprofits, and advocacy organizations. Next100’s Inclusive Policy Research and Policy Development Toolkit provides a roadmap of how policy leaders and makers can prioritize truly engaging people from impacted communities in making policy change.
- We use the word “on” to describe the feeling many young people we’ve worked with have expressed when they’ve been required to take medications that they didn’t believe they needed, or actually helped them.
- We’re using the word “parents” expansively here to include the parent, relative, or other caregiver who was responsible for the child before they entered the foster system.
- During the 2018-19 school year in California, one in eight students in the foster system changed schools twice or more during the school year.
- The two federal laws referenced here are the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (Fostering Connections) and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).