Photo: Alison Yin/EdSource

Each year, thousands of children in California are removed from their homes and placed into foster care due to parental neglect, abuse, or exploitation. During this time, they are considered to be wards or dependents of the court.

While some children are reunited with their families in a matter of weeks, others may stay in foster care for years until they reach adulthood and age out of the system.

Children in foster care are of all ages and varying needs. In addition to the trauma at home and the disruption of being removed from their families, they may change both schools and foster care placements, all of which take a toll on their physical, emotional and academic wellbeing. This primer explores some of the unique challenges faced by students in foster care and the support systems in place to help them navigate through the education system.

How many foster children are in California and the United States?

In 2018, some 59,000 children were in foster care in California, with some 33,500 enrolled in the state’s K-12 schools.

The number of children in care fluctuates, but nationwide, there were an estimated 437,000 children in foster care as of August 2019.

Is the number of children in foster care in California going up?

No, the number of foster children in California has declined to a little more than half of what it was two decades ago. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California,  the decline is mainly because children are spending less time in foster care than before, and not because fewer children are entering the system. California’s emphasis on family preservation and reunification is the principle reason for the reduced time children spend in foster care.

How long do children spend in the foster care system?

Most children are in foster care temporarily. When children under the age of 18 leave foster care, most of them return to their parents. Others are permanently adopted by their foster parents or others. Only a small proportion of children are still in care when they turn 18. These young people then have the option to remain in the system as “Non-minor Dependents,” until they turn 21.

Where do most children in foster care live?

Children in foster care live in a variety of settings, and may be subject to frequent moves, which is particularly disruptive for their education. In California, courts and social workers try to place children with extended family or a “non-relative extended family member,” an adult who has a connection to the family or established relationship with the child.

The social worker is responsible for identifying and assessing these placements and makes a recommendation to the court, which then makes the final decision. Children may also be placed with licensed foster families or in group homes. Counties in California also have the flexibility to help young people over the age of 16 with housing as part of the Independent Living Program.

How do foster youth compare to other students academically?

Children in care are often subject to changes in placement, which may require a change in schools and can have a disruptive effect on academic outcomes. On average, children in foster care fare less well in school than other students.

On the state’s standardized tests in English language arts and mathematics, students in foster care on average consistently score lower than the general student population.

In 2017-18, only 23 percent of students in foster care met or exceeded the standards on the Smarter Balanced tests for English language arts administered to students in certain grades each spring, compared to 50 percent of all students statewide. In math, only 14 percent of students met or exceeded the standards, compared to 36 percent of all students statewide.

How are foster youth doing on other measures of school performance?

Students in foster care have a chronic absenteeism rate of double the statewide average, and are suspended at four times the statewide rate. Only 59 percent of 12th-graders in foster care graduated high school with their cohort in 2018, compared to 83 percent of all students.

California’s new College/Career indicator shows that only 13.3 percent of foster youth were prepared for college and careers, compared to 42 percent of all students in 2018.

What does the law require school districts to do for foster youth?

Under a 2003 California law (AB 490), all county offices of education and school districts must appoint an educational liaison to ensure proper enrollment, transfer and placement of foster children in their schools.

Before this law, when students in care were suddenly moved to a new placement and had to change schools, their academic records, credits and grades often were not transferred in a timely manner. As a result, the students were often not assigned to appropriate classes and did not receive essential academic services.

The law places shared responsibility on county social services departments and local education agencies to ensure that school officials are notified quickly and the student’s academic records are received by the new school within two days of a transfer.

The law also mandates that students be allowed to remain in their original school unless the adult authorized to make educational decisions for the child, the social worker, and the court decide a change of school is in the child’s best interest.

In 2013, California became the first state in the nation to specifically include students in foster care as one of the student groups that are entitled to additional funding. Under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), school districts receive supplemental funding for four groups of high-needs students: low-income, homeless, English learners and students in foster care.

However, students in foster care are automatically deemed to be low-income and, because this funding is based on an “unduplicated count” of students, districts do not receive additional funding if a student falls into more than one category.

The funding formula law requires that each district identify foster youth enrolled in their schools and track their performance — along with that of other student groups — on a range of performance indicators, including suspension and graduation rates, scores on state standardized tests, and preparation for college and careers.

Although the funding formula provides funding based on the number of high-needs students, it does not mandate that districts set aside specific proportions for foster youth. Many districts have not earmarked funding for foster youth aside from general funding for high-needs students.

At the same time, however, the Local Control Funding Formula law requires that districts address low performance by children in foster care and other targeted student groups.

They must set performance goals in their Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPS, which they fill out annually, and detail the programs and services they will provide, along with the spending needed to meet the goals.

Some districts have used their funds to directly target foster youth by hiring counselors and case managers and creating programs to benefit those students.

Strategies include efforts to improve school climate to make these students feel welcome and to provide them with time outside of class to connect with supportive staff. Some districts set aside transportation funding so that students who move to a new home can continue to attend the same school. A law that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in October requires a foster youth’s guardians to consider school transportation in determining what’s in the student’s best interest.

Can foster students receive services and support after they turn 18?

Yes. Under a 2010 California law (AB 12) young people who are in foster care or under jurisdiction of a juvenile court on their 18th birthday can remain in the system until they turn 21 as “non-minor dependents” and continue to receive support services such as housing and clothing stipends, case management, counseling and access to MediCal coverage if they meet one of five criteria.

These include being enrolled in high school or an equivalency program, being enrolled in college or a vocational program, participating in a program designed to help remove barriers to employment, or being employed and working at least 80 hours a month. If a medical condition prevents a youth from meeting any of these criteria, they are still eligible to remain in the system.

Are benefits available to foster youth when they attend college?

Yes. Current and former foster youth as well as students who are or were homeless are guaranteed priority enrollment at all community colleges and CSU campuses if they meet admissions requirements. The law “requests” but does not require UC campuses to also provide priority registration to these students. These students may also be eligible for priority access to on-campus housing.

Current and former foster youth under the age of 25 may also qualify for free tuition at the University of California and the California State University as a result of a state law passed in 2018 (Senate Bill 967).

In 2018, California expanded the eligibility for students in the foster care system applying for Cal Grants. As a result, these students are eligible for Cal Grants for eight years of full-time enrollment instead of four. Additionally, they can apply for Cal Grants until they are 26, rather than within a year after graduating high school, which is the case with other students.

At the community college level, each of California’s 115 campuses has a foster youth liaison to provide academic support, help students access financial aid and assist them with living independently. California’s NextUp program provides financial assistance in the form of grants for books, supplies and other unmet needs, along with housing assistance, tutoring and a number of other services at just under 50 community colleges.

The Transitional Housing Program-Plus also offers financial help to former foster students until they turn 24, although the number of students the program can assist is limited.

EdSource staff members John Fensterwald and Smita Patel contributed to this guide. 

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  1. Morgan 5 months ago5 months ago

    This post is super relevant for right now especially with Covid. The youth in the foster care are especially having it rough, there are funds to donate to help these kids.

  2. BEN 10 months ago10 months ago

    Former foster youth do not need to be in extended foster care to continue to receive Medi-Cal. They qualify for Medi-Cal until age 26.

  3. el 10 months ago10 months ago

    I note that the article says that foster youth have priority for on-campus housing at some California universities. One of my concerns is that this housing is often not available year round; students are expected, and sometimes required, to leave during semester and summer breaks. For a student that does not have a family house to go "home" to - and this includes kids who are not foster youth - where are they going during … Read More

    I note that the article says that foster youth have priority for on-campus housing at some California universities. One of my concerns is that this housing is often not available year round; students are expected, and sometimes required, to leave during semester and summer breaks.

    For a student that does not have a family house to go “home” to – and this includes kids who are not foster youth – where are they going during these times? Where are they supposed to go? Is there any official lookout for them to ensure they have someplace to be?