Stage 2 of 4: The Traumatic Effect on Educational Outcomes of Youth in Foster Care

A few weeks back, I wrote about how trauma affects learning. I explored the definition of trauma, the way trauma can have a physical impact on our brains, common behaviors in children that experience trauma, and finally the way that trauma impacts a youth’s ability to learn.

The post from a few weeks back served as Stage 1 of my 4-Stage research journey. As you can see below, I will now be focusing on Stage 2. 

Reasons Why Youth in Foster Care Experience Trauma:

Children are most often placed in foster care after they have been removed from their home by a county child welfare agency and a court has found that their parents cannot adequately care for them. Here in Santa Clara County, 84.2% of children enter the foster care system due to negligence. 10.3% enter as a result of physical abuse, 2.5% as a result of sexual abuse and 3% for a different reason. 

According to the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS), neglect of a child occurs when a person responsible for the child’s welfare does something or fails to do something that can cause harm to the child. Physical abuse occurs when someone willfully inflicts bodily injury on a child and causes harm. Sexual abuse is the victimization of a child by sexual activities. If you remember back to my first post, all three of these reasons for removal show up on the list of traumatic events that can happen in a person’s life. So, if we think about it, children removed from the home and placed in foster care have already been exposed to trauma before they come into contact with the foster care system.

Once a child is placed in foster care, the state is supposed to protect these children by providing a 24-hour state supervised living arrangement for children.Where these children go depends on the needs of the individual child. In California, according to the Welfare and Institutions Code, children are required to be placed in the least restrictive or most family-like setting:

*Note that this chart is organized in order from LEAST restrictive environment for the child to the MOST restrictive environment for the child. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that half of all children spend less than a year in care while a third spend one to three years in care. While each child is different, there are challenges that children face in foster care, regardless of their length of involvement. These challenges often lead to more traumatic events (on top of the trauma they have already been exposed to which caused their removal from their home):

  • Separation from family
    • Sudden and forcible separation of children from their parents is deeply traumatic for both children and parents as well)
    • This experience triggers a biological stress response inside the child, which may never go away until the caregiver or parent returns
  • Frequent moves from home to home & living in group settings
    • Frequent moves can make it hard for children to concentrate while in schools, maintain friendships and heal from whatever trauma caused their removal from the home
    • Children don’t get a chance to experience regular family life or develop and build bonds with adults who will always be there for them 
  • School instability (The frequent movement of a child from one school to another)
    • While there are laws in place that require agencies to try and keep children at their home schools, too often, this doesn’t actually happen
    • Studies have shown that school stability is what leads to success in education
  • Distance from parents
    • The long-term goal in many foster care cases is to reunite them with their parent(s)
    • This can prove to be hard to accomplish when children move further and further away from their parents

Youth in Foster Care: A Look at Educational Data and Statistics 

Every year, Kids in Common reports on the progress that Santa Clara County makes in ensuring that all children are set up for success* in their lives. In the 2018 data report, Santa Clara County (SCC) reported that children who are raised in safe and stable homes are more likely to be successful in learning and successful in life. With that in mind, it is quite easy to see why youth in foster care tend to not be successful in learning. Youth in foster care do not have a safe and stable home with their parents because they have been removed from their homes. Youth in foster care have a high level of instability, which lead to the following daunting statistics:

Why the terrible statistics for youth in foster care? Many youth in foster care experience difficulty in school, under-perform and therefore leave high school without a diploma. As mentioned above, school instability is a common challenge faced by children in foster care. When children move around frequently, they often have to transfer to different schools, which can cause them to lose friends and maybe even mentors that they had at their old school. Going to a new school also forces children in foster care to adapt to a completely new set of rules, standards and a change in curriculum depending on where their new school is located. If a child has a learning disability or needs educational accommodations, changing schools can also have a huge negative impact on implementing their accommodations in the classroom. Past trauma prior to their removal from the home, trauma from being removed, and trauma once in the foster care system make the challenges of moving schools even harder. 

The focus of my next post, Stage 3, will look at ways in which the educational public system in California does and does not address trauma in youth. 

*I am defining “success” in school and learning by looking at statewide tests given in California as well as graduation from high school. While I am aware that there are many other factors that can define success of a student, I am focusing on tests and diplomas.