How Teachers Can Advocate for Their Students in Foster Care
By summers end, I am always eagerly awaiting another school year. As a teacher, I’ve always had a few students each year with behavioral issues. No big deal, it’s just the nature of the job. However, I had no idea what this school year had in store for me. But because of the lessons I was taught in my classroom this year, I have grown to be a better teacher and advocate for foster children.
As a board member of the Ticket to Dream Foundation, I have met many foster youth, which has given me a clearer insight to the struggles and triumphs that foster youth can face. Even further, spending six hours a day, nine months a year with a foster child in my classroom has provided even more understanding of the pain, emotions, and trauma that is placed on these young lives. I look at these students and think “it is not fair. Why do they have to suffer like this at such a young age?” They go through situations that most of us will never have to endure. As a caregiver, I want to scoop these children up and take them away from all of it. Even if we could scoop them away, they would still have the scars of their childhood.
During the first two weeks of the school year, I spend my time teaching rules and expectations, assessing academic levels, and just getting to know who I have in my class. This time also gives me a peek into what their home life is like. This year, I had a student that I will refer to as Mary. She confided in me that she lives with her grandmother, whom she refers to as “mom,” because both her parents are drug addicts.
Shortly after the school year was underway, Mary came to school and told me that her grandmother left in an ambulance. With no one to care for her, she and her 6-year-old uncle were placed in foster care, like her five siblings. Mary was very upset and further afraid because her foster parents did not live near the school so she would be required to start a new school during this traumatic time. I too was upset as I knew that staying at this school meant stability and was a safety net for her.
Because of my background, I knew that foster children have educational rights under California state law AB490. This piece of legislation states that foster youth must have access to the same education resources as their peers, and that school personnel, care takers, & court advocates must work together to meet the educational needs of youth in the system. I immediately let the school counselor know that Mary had entered foster care so she could begin receiving support from them right away. With a little digging, I reached out to Mary’s social worker and foster parents. The foster parents worried that they would not be able to get her to and from school easily, so I arranged before school care at the school and the funding to participate. Mary’s foster parents declined this, but agreed to keep Mary at her school. She was now arriving much too early every day. Happily, this allowed Mary to join me each morning as I sat at my desk and worked. During this time, she would tell me everything that is going on in her life, including sharing her pain of the past year and talking about the neglect she endured as a toddler.
As the school year went on, I watched Mary start having problems with her schoolwork and get into verbal confrontations with other students. She was very angry and not the same girl she was at the beginning of the year. During one of our morning talks she told me that she was tired of taking care of her siblings and she did not have time to do anything she likes.
I filled our school counselor in on what was happening, and felt that Mary needed someone in addition to me advocating for her. I have several friends who are Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and knew it was time to get someone for Mary. A CASA is a volunteer who advocates for a child’s needs in both the courtroom and in the community. They are dedicated to seeking out the best interest of children who have been abused or neglected, and are often the only stable adult relationship in a foster child’s life. I contacted CASA of Sacramento County and fill out the paperwork. Within a month, I received a letter letting me know that Mary had been assigned a CASA. Mary meets with her CASA once a week to talk and do fun activities. This seems to be helping her spirits.
During recent court proceedings, it was determined that Mary’s biological parents would have their parental rights permanently revoked for all six of their children. Mary’s younger siblings are in a foster-to-adopt placement and will soon have permanency with their adoptive parents. While she is thrilled for them, she is also sad to be separated from her siblings and wonders why she has not been adopted too. I agree as she is a great kid with so much potential. So many of her classmates are asking their parents if they could adopt Mary. In the minds of eleven-year old’s, it seems like such a simple notion!
I don’t know what the next couple of months will hold for Mary. The school year is coming to an end and I worry about will happen over the summer. Will she be able to see her friends? Will she be adopted? I am speaking to her social worker and foster parents about visiting her at least once a week to maintain that stability in her life.
I feel it is important that as educators we need to help the foster children that are placed in our classrooms. We need to advocate for them and make sure they are feeling safe and secure. Social services are often overwhelmed with heavy caseloads and lack of staffing. That is another reason why we need to step in and make sure their rights are being honored. There are those that tell me that I am not getting paid to do the extra work and should just let it be. That is not the type of person I am and I want our future filled with healthy, capable adults. We cannot ignore these children.
Recently, I assigned a “quick write” and asked the children to write what they loved best about 5th grade. Most students respond with P.E., recess, and free time on the computer. When I came upon Mary’s “quick write” I was touched and knew that all my concern and extra time was making a positive impact on her life:
My favorite thing about 5th grade is that my teacher is amazing and very giving. Through the year she has helped me with a life problem. She is always there for me when I am sad or upset. She makes me feel loved and every time I feel stronger. She is very giving and kind. She is a bright star in the sky that shines more than any other one. She is the nicest person I know.