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Children in the child welfare system are at risk of missing their academic potential

Where are the educational supports our kids need?

Laura Eggertson
July 1, 2008

New research from the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy has identified up to 40% of the province's children as "at-risk kids." The startlingly research, which predicts poor outcomes for young people based on three risk factors, contains information the foster and adoption community in Canada needs to know.

That's because time spent in the child welfare system is one of the three factors that puts kids at risk for failing to graduate from high school, becoming teen parents or ending up on social assistance as young adults.

The Manitoba researchers — Noralou Roos, Marnie Brownell and Randy Franson — tracked 11,703 children. They looked at all kids born in Manitoba in 1984 and 1985, who still lived in Winnipeg when they turned 18. More than 30% of Winnipeg children and more than 40% of rural children in Manitoba fell into the "at risk" category, based on the outcomes the researchers found.

Only 51% of children who spent time in the child welfare system graduated from high school.

Roos, Brownell and Franson are using their findings to advocate for a public/private partnership in Manitoba that will invest in at-risk kids. They're calling for a broad-based coalition to support proven programs and interventions that can mitigate these risks, and turn these figures around.

The researchers point to the importance of early childhood education programs, reading and literacy supports, tutoring and mentoring initiatives that connect with at-risk kids and their families as early as possible, and follow them throughout their academic careers. Intervening to help at-risk kids succeed will result in a larger skilled workforce — essential in today's economy — and will stave off the social costs that will mount if we leave these kids — our kids — to flounder.

As foster and adoptive parents across Canada and the United States, we too can use these disturbing statistics. We must use them. Although this research took place in Manitoba, its findings resonate more broadly. The research gives us important ammunition in our struggle to get child welfare agencies, schools, communities, businesses and our governments to recognize that these kids belong to all of us — and they need all our help. If we don't act to stem this looming crisis of lost potential, it is not just the children who will suffer. Our society as a whole will reap the results of failure.

One of the interventions that the Manitoba researchers have not yet studied is moving kids out of the child welfare system into adoptive families and permanent homes. Providing children with permanency, stability, structure and love is one critical way of lowering the odds against them. Part of the advantage we then give them is a family who is on their side and can advocate for the other crucial assistance they need.

Educational supports are critical to the children who remain in care, and to the children we have adopted from the child welfare system. Their poor starts to life, and the early losses, instability, trauma and neglect that many experience show up in their academic performance, in many cases. It's hard to do well at school if you are constantly worried about your birth family, your siblings, and how long this foster family will keep you — or whether your new "forever" family will really last. Constant moves and emotional upheavals affect even the brightest and most studious child. Those with learning disabilities and invisible handicaps, such as alcohol-induced neurological damage, have an even greater struggle. Add to that self-esteem and identity issues, and our kids face a difficult time when it comes to school.

We need to lobby for more educational supports for our kids. We need to make the policymakers and decision makers who hold the purse strings listen. To do that, we need to invoke the economic argument that the Manitoba research suggests.

There is a looming labour shortage across Canada, as the Baby Boom generation begins to retire and the birthrate drops. We need all the skilled and educated workers we can produce. Neglecting 30%-40% of them because we don't want to spend the time and money to help them now is simply a short-sighted waste of our resources.

As the parent of two former Crown wards, both adopted in Ontario, I have seen the difference that extra educational support can make. I enrolled my oldest daughter in the Kumon math tutoring program. After two years, the 15 minutes a day she spent drilling on basic math skills meant she could do equations in her head and lead her class in solving problems that required quick addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. She took enormous pride from that success.

My younger daughter goes to an after-school program twice a week at the Wabano Health Centre in Ottawa, where the aboriginal community has recognized the importance of encouraging academic success. She not only gets help with her homework, she learns from role models from her own culture — older students who lend their time and talents to encouraging the younger kids. These are the kind of programs that all kids who have spent time in the child welfare system need.

There are other researchers whose work supports what the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy has found. Bob Flynn, the director of the University of Ottawa's Centre for Research on Community Services, has implemented a program to support children in care, in partnership with the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies. He collected data from 23 Children's Aid Societies in Ontario, and discovered that kids in care have many strengths. They rank virtually identically to children in the general population in terms of health, positive social behaviour and self-care. But they lag behind their peers in academic performance, and in terms of their level of anxiety or emotional distress.

Because of Flynn's research, some Children's Aid Societies have moved improving children's academic performance to the top of their priority lists. One agency hired a professional tutoring company to work with kids with educational delays. The result? Tutoring raised their grade levels in a short period of time. Other agencies negotiated agreements with school boards to station social workers in the schools. Still others recruited retired teachers to act as mentors for the at-risk kids.

"Education, in our society, is still the major determinant of life chances," Flynn told me in discussing his research for the University of Ottawa's Research Perspectives publication in 2006. "If we don't help kids in care realize their academic potential, they are going to suffer life-long."

These are the kind of model programs we need across the country. We need them for kids currently in care, and kids who have moved to permanent homes, who still carry the legacy of their earlier lives. We need our provincial governments, either in partnership with private sector sponsors or alone, to invest in these programs and to make these interventions a priority. That won't happen, however, without loud and sustained lobbying from the foster and adoption community. Our families — and our kids — also need a voice in the way these programs are designed and implemented. It's only fair, since we are the stakeholders most directly affected.

Ontario is beginning to recognize and respond to the educational needs of current and former Crown wards. In August 2007, in the midst of a provincial election campaign, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced an additional investment in a program called Access Grants, for current and former Crown wards going to community college or universities. The province will now cover half the tuition costs — to a maximum of $3,000 per year — for students who are currently in care or who were Crown wards. Beginning this year, the province also covers the cost of college and university application fees for current and former Crown wards (who must identify themselves as such on their applications or in covering letters).

The province also allocated $500,000 for "championship education teams" in four cities: Ottawa, Toronto, Thunder Bay and London. Each team, consisting of advocates and experts from Children's Aid Societies, local school boards, colleges and universities, would offer mentoring, tutoring, and counselling to help Crown wards get from high school to college, university of apprenticeship programs, according to the premier's announcement. Each received about $100,000 for their pilot project, which was intended to roll out across the province eventually.

In Ottawa, the championship education team spent much of the last year building relationships among its partners, according to Marguerite Donahue, the team's co-chair. The team met with the youth advisory committee at the Ottawa-Carleton Children's Aid Society to help them craft a mission statement. That statement reads "When we support, promote, and strive for great things, great things will be achieved."

The Ottawa project's overall goal is to "increase the (kids) participation in post-secondary education or training, or if entering the workforce is their goal, at least to have them become contributing members of society," says Donahue.

The team has so far focused on showing kids in care the possibilities available to them, how to get them, and offering them connections to someone who can help when they arrive at college or university. At an information session, 15- to 17-year-old youths in care learned about posts-secondary options and workplace experiences, and then signed up to visit any of the institutions or workplaces that interested them. In total, 62 youths then visited either Algonquin College, Carleton University or the University of Ottawa, or went to a potential workplace such as OC Transpo, the City's public transit authority. The Ottawa team also plans to create individual "educational roadmaps to success" that will follow each child in care wherever he or she goes, based on the children's goals and needs.

While the championship education teams are a laudable concept, in practice they need to focus more on supporting those kids in care and kids who have been adopted out of the child welfare system who will not make it to college or university without support and interventions.

The brightest, most-driven kids will succeed despite the odds. The ones who really need our help, if they are not to fulfill the prophecy of their "at-risk" label, are those who struggle to make it through elementary and high school, affected by their early backgrounds, their multiple moves, their learning disabilities or other handicaps. They need individual, targeted attention — the tutoring, mentoring and counselling programs that Premier McGuinty's news release so glowingly promised. Those supports, provided as soon as our at-risk kids enter the school system, could make a real difference.

The research emerging from the University of Manitoba, the University of Ottawa and other academic institutions is beginning to inform the decisions that policymakers and politicians are making about where to allocate our tax dollars, and whether to direct it towards kids who have had contact with the child welfare system. Our job as advocates and parents is now to use that information to lobby for the supports that our kids need.

We must speak out and demand that our kids get the crucial educational tools they need to succeed, to shed the 'at-risk' label attached to them, and to become the talented, giving, and independent members of society who can play vital roles in our workplaces and our communities. We must also allow our kids to speak for themselves, to tell those same policymakers and decision makers what they need, and how to get it. It's not enough that they be consulted, once, in an advisory capacity. They need to be an integral part of the education teams and private/public partnerships that can help them achieve their goals.

We've been given the statistics and the findings that will help us make our case. Now it's up to us to move the agenda forward.

Laura Eggertson is an Ottawa-based journalist, the mother of two former Crown wards, and facilitates an adoptive parent support group. She is also one of the provincial representatives in Ontario of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

Copyright 2008 Laura Eggertson,


First published in NACAC's quarterly Adoptalk, Summer 2008.

Published on Dec. 8, 2008 at Canadian Coalition of Adoptive Families as "Canadian Research Affirms Foster/Adopted Children's Need for Educational Supports".

Published on Dec. 13, 2008 at Family Helper.


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