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Opinion | Michigan foster care children deserve a better education

Last December, Bridge Michigan and Chalkbeat Detroit reported that foster youth, including those previously living in residential facilities, were never given high school credits for schoolwork they had completed.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is responsible for the care and well-being of children in the child welfare system and has as its stated vision “to lead Michigan in supporting our children, youth and families to reach their full potential.”

Fred Gruber headshot
Fred Gruber is former executive director of the Michigan Children’s Law Center.

Michigan School Data for the 2020-21 school year, cited in the Bridge article, shows that the graduation rate for foster care youth was 40 percentage points lower than for all students, with the dropout rate higher. Moreover, only 40 percent of youths in residential or juvenile facilities graduate from high school.

The American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law has stated: “Positive school experiences can counteract the negative effects of abuse, neglect, separation, and lack of permanency, often experienced by children and youth in foster care … while in school and in adulthood.” 

Clearly, important segments of Michigan’s student population have been denied these “positive school experiences” and, more importantly, the opportunity to reach their “full potential” because both MDHHS and the Michigan Department of Education, which have been entrusted with their care and education, have failed them. Recent legislative developments point to an attempt to address this problem. But more needs to be done.

In my opinion, to ensure better educational outcomes for neglect and delinquency wards on a day-to-day basis, increased judicial oversight and guidance are needed from Michigan’s dedicated jurists in every county. 

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has developed a judicial checklist for ascertaining the educational needs of foster youth, saying that by asking the right questions, a juvenile court judge can set “expectations and standards for practice which may have a significant impact on how social workers, educators and other service providers respond to young people in the future.” It can be no different for juvenile justice youth.

It is respectfully suggested, among other things, that our jurists, at hearings for all court wards, inquire about the academic progress of foster children at all grade levels, results of applicable standardized tests and/or academic benchmark assessments in math and language arts, and for high school youth ask about their grade level and credits toward graduation. Inquiry should also be made regarding individualized education program (IEP) eligibility, as well as number of home placements. Written updates should be provided at every hearing.

In addition, MDHHS should provide trained educational consultants to courts to ensure that each child’s educational needs are being addressed.

Lawyers and guardians should be trained to effectively advocate for their child clients on education-related matters. That representation should include periodic meetings with their schools’ teachers, counselors and administrators, making the same kinds of inquiries. 

Since 2015, the Michigan Children’s Law Center’s Education Advocacy Unit has successfully advocated for the educational needs of hundreds of court wards, obtaining IEPs for eligible students and preventing unfair and unlawful suspensions and expulsions.

A successful outcome for any youth who has been in the foster care or juvenile justice system must at least include a high school diploma or certificate of completion.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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