I was recently thinking about a variety of cases where children have been shuffled between foster homes creating a pattern of instability for them. Leaving one's home, family, familiar surroundings is traumatic even if the child is departing a very difficult situation. They are leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar and must adjust to a new family, new rules, new home, new neighborhood and new schools. Each move requires the adjustments.
School is more than a place of education for children - it is their connection to peers, activities and supports. If each foster home change brings a change of schools, then roots that can hep sustain a sense of stable connections to people that matter (friends and teachers for example) also get lost. There is a point when children stop trying to sustain relationships believing that they will just be moved anyway.
For sure, foster home stability is an urgent need. Children arrive in foster care often having suffered chaos at home that has left them struggling with managing their own emotions. This makes them hard to parent which in turn increases the risk of being moved from one placement to another. Dowdell et al., (2009) in the MCN: American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing note that multiple placements can negatively impact on health and well being. Lewis et al., (2007) found similar results when adopted children experienced placement instability. Writing in Developmental Psychology, they stated, "These results suggest that placement instability may adversely affect the social-emotional development of adopted children." Regrettably, there is a long line of research that shows the adverse outcomes of placement instability. There can even be an argument that if you cannot offer a child a safe and stable place to be out of home, are you really helping the child?
One interesting debate is to find stability through school. Trying to keep a child connected to the same school can offer some stability in spite of changes of household. They get to see the same school, teachers and peers and can continue in their same extra-curricular activities (something lost when changes of school occur).
A report recently released by the New Jersey Office of the Child Advocate (USA) states "Research shows that frequent school changes are seriously detrimental to children in foster care. School mobility negatively affects these youth academically, socially, behaviorally and psychologically, research documents. It also further exacerbates the lack of continuity and stability in their lives." (p.4). Given that children in the foster care system have demonstrably poorer educational, social, employment and behavioral outcomes (see material from Chapin Hill on this point), we should strive to offer as much stability as possible and school may be one important place to do that.
As the New Jersey report notes, there may be times when school change should be done such as when a child moves into a pre-adoption situation with a family. The report suggests criteria for a best interest determination on when to change or not change schools:
"The following criteria should be used in the best interest determination:
(1) safety considerations;
(2) the proximity of the resource home to the child’s school of origin;
(3) the age and grade level of the child as it relates to the other best interest factors listed in this subsection;
(4) the needs of the child, including social adjustment and well-being;
(5) the child’s preferences;
(6) the child’s performance, continuity of education and engagement in the school the child presently attends;
(7) the child’s special education programming, if the child is classified;
(8) point of time in the school year;
(9) the child’s permanency goal, the likelihood of reunification and the anticipated duration of the current placement" (p.6).
This may not be an exhaustive list but it does help us to see how we might consider the needs of the child before making school changes. The report is worth a review. It can be found at http://www.state.nj.us/childadvocate/reports/protection/SchoolStability01110.pdf
A poignant personal perspective can be found http://www.scpr.org/news/2010/09/24/life-systemlong-odds-facing-ls-foster-kids/ In this powerful look inside a life within foster care, consider this reflection on school: “There should have been somebody there,” Trayvon, who went to 10 different high schools in 4 years, told KPCC. “There was nobody there when I was going to all these different schools. I had repeated courses that I had already taken. That was the thing. I was actually completing courses and then when I went to a new school, “We didn’t get your transcripts”. I had to retake a lot of these courses. I [had a lot of] frustration and anger at that point.”