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Sharing Data Key to Improving Foster Care Outcomes

An average of 32 percent of foster students change schools in a given year, making data sharing imperative to improving their educational success.

States that share data among child welfare and education agencies have a better chance of lessening some of the barriers foster care students face and improving student success, according to a report by the Data Quality Campaign and the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. 

The report details which states (currently 24, plus the District of Columbia) securely link K-12 data systems with foster care data systems to provide foster care students with crucial supports like assisting with timely enrollment.

“At any given time, there are about half a million students that are in some kind of care such as child welfare services or foster care,” said Chris Kingsley, associate director of local policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit national advocacy organization. “The mobility rate of foster students is almost four times as high as non-foster students in California alone, and we know highly mobile students face challenges other students don’t.”

Kingsley said an average of 32 percent of foster students change schools in a given year, compared to seven percent of students as a whole. 

“Foster care students often end up in a whole new educational circumstance and often a new family context as well. But one of the points of continuity for foster kids ideally is their school,” said Kingsley. “If they aren’t getting that, there is little continuity at all, especially if their records aren’t following them to the new school. The administration at the new school often spends the first month just trying to figure out who this kid is, what their academic strengths and weaknesses are, and what they need.”

In addition to high rates of mobility, studies show students in foster care often experience delayed enrollment when school changes occur; high suspension, expulsion and dropout rates; and low college graduation rates. Despite their need for special help, these students are often unidentified and underserved.

But states that securely share limited, critical information between schools and child welfare staff can help with timely enrollment and transfer of credits if a school change is needed; identify the need for educational supports; work with school staff to address attendance and discipline issues; and assist with transition planning to post-graduation activities such as higher education, said the report. 

Due to federal restrictions on sharing student data, much of this data wasn’t being collected and shared until very recently. Fortunately, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act in 2008, making it clear that case workers have a right to educational information and an obligation to partner with schools to try to create educational stability for kids in care. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which amends the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), was passed in 2013, making it even easier for social workers to gain access to foster student records.

“Our success is linked, so there are real reasons from both a policy and community perspective to want this data integrated,” said Erin Dalton, deputy director at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services in Pennsylvania, which has a memorandum of understanding in place to share data with 17 of the county’s 42 school districts, including the largest, Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

Dalton said research conducted by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services found that over half of the kids in Pittsburgh Public Schools have or have had some involvement in their service system. Over the last several years, the department has built tools that push data from the school systems to the DHS systems, allowing child welfare workers to see a student’s absences, GPA, standardized test scores, etc. They’ve also built alerts into the system to notify case workers if a child has three or more absences per week.

“There are reasons for these large child-serving systems to be working together,” said Dalton. “There is a lot of cross-system involvement and also these are tens of thousands of kids – it’s not a small problem you can easily wrap your arms around. Within-school-year moves are really tough for kids in terms of absenteeism and lower GPA. But there are things the schools can do and there are things child services can do to minimize school disruptions – so it’s actionable if we are all on the same page.”

For example, Dalton said the Allegheny County Department of Human Services has worked to reduce the number of moves it makes associated with child welfare placements, especially during the school year. And when a child welfare services worker is sitting down with a judge to make a determination about the next placement for the student, the judge now receives a one-page summary of the student’s academic transcript so he or she can take into account whether or not the student has been going to school consistently.

In California, the Stuart Foundation recently supported a study that linked child welfare and education data to create an educational snapshot for students in K-12. 

“That’s going to tell child welfare workers and judges something about the condition of the current placement and whether or not it needs to change,” said Kingsley. “That’s information was not being shared a few years ago.”

“Data bridges that relationship between the education agency and the child welfare agencies that are both working in concert to support these students,” said Elizabeth Dabney, associate director of research and policy analysis for the Data Quality Campaign. “Data can help guide the conversation and give everyone a common language about the challenges these students are facing and how those agencies can come together to really support these students.”

By securely sharing limited, critical information about how students in foster care fare in education, the K-12 and child welfare sectors can collaborate more effectively to best support these students, said the report.

“Foster students have complex lives and they move through multiple systems,” said Dabney. “We have a moral and legal obligation to these students because they are wards of the state. And there is not always a parent figure to negotiate all these different systems. If you don’t share data across the courts and welfare services and the schools that are looking out for these kids, then nobody has the big picture.”

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at