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Child Welfare, Education and the Courts National Meeting

November 3, 2011
Arlington, VA

Thank you, Bryan.

Bryan is an amazing asset to our department and has been a leader and innovator in our efforts to care for some of the most vulnerable children in America.

It’s wonderful to welcome you to a summit that has been a long time in the making. I want to thank my HHS staff for all of the hard work that has gone into organizing this meeting. And I want to thank my good friend and partner Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who unfortunately couldn’t be here today. He and his staff have been there every step of the way as we put this event together.

I also want to acknowledge Senator Mary Landrieu who was unable to be here today. Senator Landrieu is a fierce champion for foster children and youth and a valuable partner in our efforts to care for them.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for being here. The people in this room represent the public servants who are vital to the life of a foster child. You’ve dedicated your careers to helping kids reach their full potential and improving your communities. You come from different areas, but we’ve brought you together here to do work that is critical to the well-being of some of our nation’s most vulnerable kids. And I know you’re up for it.

Those in the foster care community talk about three goals for an effective foster care system: safety, permanency and well-being. The first two are easier to define. When a state or local agency finds out that a child and family is in trouble, we determine whether that child can stay safely at home – perhaps with added support – or if it is necessary to remove the child for their own safety. Our next goal is permanency. After a removal, every effort is made to find a permanent home for that child, whether that is back home with their parents, at the home of a family member, or with a new family through an adoption.

As many in this room know, the third goal, well-being, is often much more complicated. It’s our effort to promote healing and start a child in our system on a path to normalcy that ultimately leads to opportunity and success in reaching their dreams. It’s an effort to give to a foster child what we would want for any of our children. It’s based on an understanding that a home needs to be more than a roof and four walls. It’s a place where a child is nurtured and supported so that they can grow to become contributing adults.

But as you know, it can be hard to reach this goal. Too often we get a child to safety and perhaps even to permanency, and then there is another child who needs our help, and another after that. That often means that well-being is left out. This has especially been true at the federal level.

But the Obama Administration is committed to changing that. In the last two and a half years, we’ve stretched our dollars and renewed our commitment to making the well-being of the 400,000 children and youth in foster care a top priority. And education is a major component of this effort.

Today, children who enter foster care face significant challenges to their educational success. We know this from research and experience at the state level. For example, we know that only a quarter of three-year-olds in foster care are in early education programs.

For school age children, the situation can be much worse. The day a child enters foster care, they are usually a year behind in their reading and a year and a half behind in math. This happens for many reasons. A child may have been sent to several schools over the course of their time in the system, disrupting their studies. School transfers also can cause lapses in attendance. Many foster children have struggled with disciplinary issues as well.

Children who come into foster care have come from difficult situations – facing abuse or neglect and often a chaotic home environment in which neither children nor the adults in their lives are focused on the child’s education.

It is up to all of us to make sure that education is not a casualty of this chaos.

All of the people in the room today are in a position to help a child in the foster care system achieve academic success. Whether it’s the court system ensuring that school placement is a priority in their proceedings, a school making a special effort to help a foster child catch up with their peers, or a child welfare agency ensuring that a child is placed in a home where education will be a priority, we all have a vital role to play.

And now, we have more opportunity than ever to do this work right.

In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act which gave us a new mandate to take down the barriers that stand in the way of a foster child’s educational success.

The law is clear that child welfare agencies must make the child’s education a top priority. That means making sure that children are enrolled in an appropriate education program and when possible, that children stay in their original school so they can maintain continuity in their learning. And to help make that happen, it also gives states the option to keep a child in their original school even if they move out of district, and allows them to use foster care funds for transportation between their home and that school.

Since the law was enacted, state child welfare agencies around the country have been working on their plans for implementing the law. You’ve collaborated with state and local school officials and with the federal government to create the best plan for your states and the families you serve. But the child welfare system can’t do it alone.

A child welfare agency can identify a good home to place a child, but unless the court pays attention, it can lead to the child being removed from their original school.

That same child welfare agency might find that a child will be best cared for in another state or district. But without the school system playing an active role in that transition, important information about the child’s educational history, including any learning or disciplinary issues, can get lost in the shuffle. This can make the transition that much harder and the likelihood of further educational setbacks that much greater.

Bringing together the systems represented here today – the courts, education and child welfare – gives us the best chance of giving foster children the educational opportunities they deserve. As you all know, the law doesn’t require this collaboration, but all of you have stepped up to this challenge because you know it’s the right thing to do. On behalf of the Obama Administration, I want to thank you for that effort.

And to keep our momentum going, we’re also doing what we can to support you.

The legislation did not provide new funds for our programs. But by stretching our department dollars, HHS was able to recently award $4.3 million in grants to 18 organizations around the country to begin the process of building state and local partnerships between child welfare and education systems. It won’t be all of the funding states need, but it’s a great start and states already have great plans for this money.

For some states, these funds will bolster programs that have already had some success.

For example, for years, Broward County, Florida has had an active partnership among the agencies that care for foster children. But over time, they’ve identified areas where a little help could go a long way. They’ll use their grant to enhance their IT infrastructure to allow for better information sharing between their schools and child welfare agencies. And they’ll offer training programs to community stakeholders to help them understand the role of state agencies, especially the courts, in improving the education of their foster care population.

For others, the grants serve as a jumping off point to begin the process of collaboration.

In Arkansas, they’ll use funds to bring together their early education and child welfare leaders to review the way they’ve been connecting foster children to child care and to look for and propose ways to improve. They’ll also conduct state-wide surveys of court officers, child care providers and child welfare workers to gauge their knowledge of child development and maltreatment issues facing Arkansas foster youth. This knowledge will be used to inform the development of future policies.

This effort has been a priority for both HHS and the Department of Education and we continue to look for other places we can partner to improve the education opportunities for foster children and youth.

That’s why as part of the administration’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, we’ve made early learning opportunities for children with the greatest needs, including foster kids, a top priority. This new $500 million state-level grant competition gives states an unprecedented opportunity to improve their early learning and development programs so that more children are prepared for success in school and life. Raising the bar on quality in our early learning system is one of the administration’s most important efforts, and one that is critical to young foster children.

Children in our child welfare system have faced formidable obstacles but they can achieve great things if the adults in their lives – their families, foster parents, case workers, judges, and teachers – all work together to help that child onto a path of opportunity.

What makes this summit so important is that it gives all of us the chance to learn from each other and share our knowledge and experiences. I know that each of you will go home with new ideas about ways to make these systems work better for children and families, and I look forward to hearing about the progress we are making together in the months ahead.

By taking on this challenge together, we can show children and families who depend on the foster care system that we have their back. And we can give every child who enters our system the education and opportunity that they deserve.

Thank you