Bridging the Gap Between Schools and Social Services

For children involved in the child welfare system, schools become just another agency involved in that child’s life, and teachers become just another adult involved in that child’s case. A child in foster care, for example, likely has a team of social workers, case managers, lawyers, judges, guardians, and foster parents all involved in his or her life. Many also have therapists, advocates, and volunteers from community agencies stepping in to lend a hand.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 5.43.46 PMIn the two years I’ve volunteered as an advocate for youth in foster care through Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA), I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of agencies and adults that come forward when a child is facing a crisis. I’ve been overwhelmed both by the services and structures that are available to support these kids, but also by the sheer number of people and places to navigate. And as a former teacher, I’ve been struck by the lack of communication and coordination between schools and the rest of the agencies.

In my role as an advocate, I get to meet with a youth’s biological parents and relatives, foster family, teachers, medical professionals, social workers, attorneys, and anyone else on her case in order to make recommendations to the judge about the child’s placement.

The lack of communication across agencies is evident as I talk to these various parties. Teachers are too often unaware of therapy, mentoring, or other support structures the child’s social services team has put in place. Similarly, the child’s team is too often unaware of behavioral or emotional supports in place in the child’s classrooms, or of work that the child is doing with a school psychologist, social worker, and/or counselor.

Two challenges emerge from this: One, the child becomes the intersecting point between these various adults and agencies, tasked with relaying information across and between them. It’s unfair to expect a child in crisis to make sense of the different options and supports available, but it’s also incredibly inefficient. And two, the child becomes overwhelmed—and often frustrated and confused—by duplicative services put in place by schools and other agencies. With so much to balance, there’s a real risk that kids may check out entirely.

There’s a real missed opportunity here for adults to collaborate and provide a holistic support plan for children in crisis. Ensuring schools—teachers, counselors, social workers, and principals—are part of that plan is crucial. On a small scale, models like community schools and integrated student supports have proven effective in bringing together schools and community services. CASA uses volunteers to help bridge this gap for individual children. But currently, these initiatives are too small to make a difference for the 650,000 kids served by the Administration for Children and Families’ foster care and adoption program nationwide.

Ultimately, for kids in “the system,” the burden has fallen to them to be the central point between the various adults intersecting on their cases. It’s time we lift that burden from the kids and create a way to better collaborate and share data and information among adults and across systems. Such collaboration will only strengthen the care provided to children in crisis.