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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 21, No. 1
January 2016

When Children in Foster Care Need IEPs or Special Education Services

All children need support to succeed in school. Some need more than others. The preceding article gives an overview of how Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and special education services can assist qualified children. This article offers tips for child welfare professionals seeking to navigate the sometimes confusing world of IEPs and special education services in North Carolina's public schools. (Special thanks to Marlyn Wells, of the Exceptional Children's Assistance Center, for her suggestions.)

It's a Team Process
The IEP process should be a collaborative one similar to the child and family team (CFT) meeting process used by North Carolina's child welfare agencies. If social workers understand and appreciate the CFT process, they will be primed to participate on the IEP team. IEP teams require cooperation and partnership. No single individual has all the answers--IEPs involve a group process and group decisions.

Parent Involvement
The IEP process strongly emphasizes parental involvement. Parents are expected to participate as equal partners in the process; they must be invited to attend meetings and an IEP must be shown to parents before it can be implemented. For a handbook outlining parent rights related to the IEP process, click here.

Child welfare agencies should be aware that even when children are in foster care, under federal law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) parents retain their parental educational rights unless they are specifically taken away by the court (NC DPI, 2008). This extends even to parents who are incarcerated (Ward & Herrick, 2010).

In addition to birth parents who retain their educational rights, in North Carolina family foster care parents, guardians, and relatives (e.g., kinship caregivers) who live with the child are legally allowed to fill the parental role in the IEP process. However, a therapeutic foster parent, group home worker, or the DSS worker cannot fill the role of a parent in an IEP meeting (NC DPI, 2014). Guardians ad Litem (GALs) can also serve as a parent in the IEP process if they are appointed to do so by the court (NC DPI, 2008).

Surrogate parents. If a parent or foster parent isn't available, the local education agency (LEA) is required to recommend or appoint a surrogate parent to fill this role in the IEP process. LEAs maintain a registry of adults they call on to act as IEP surrogates.

If a surrogate parent is assigned, DSS workers should make sure they're appropriate. See the box below for some hallmarks of effective surrogates. If DSS believes a surrogate isn't acting in the best interest of the child, the agency can ask the LEA to find a new one.

Traits of Effective IEP Surrogates
  1. Knowledgeable about special ed.

  2. Comfortable with the IEP process.

  3. Knows the child has a right to participate actively in the school environment.

  4. Makes no judgment about the child's history but is there to advocate from a strengths-based perspective.

  5. Culturally responsive and sensitive, especially to race, poverty, and socio-economic issues.

  6. Able to negotiate.


Children with IEPs
Any time a child enters foster care, child welfare agencies should be sure to ask birth parents and schools if the child has an IEP. Many will. Compared to their peers, young people in foster care are five times as likely to be eligible for or to receive special education services (Scherr, 2007).

If you are working with a child in foster care who has an IEP, follow these initial steps:

Get the child's records. Your first step should be to obtain copies of all relevant school records, including: (1) a copy of the child's IEP; (2) copies of psychological/diagnostic testing and evaluation materials; and (3) records that show the classification of disability and the determination of placement, which describe where and how special education services are delivered.

As a representative of the agency with custody of the child, you have a right to copies of these records. Knowing the child's educational record is vitally important if you want to be helpful to the child.

Always use email to request these records. Who you approach to obtain records will depend on the situation. If the child enters foster care but remains in the same classroom, start by asking the child's teacher. If you can't get what you need from the teacher, go up the chain of command, contacting the school's head of special programs or, if necessary, the principal.

If the child changes schools upon entering foster care, email the record request to the child's former principal, cc'ing that school's head of special programs.

Review the child's records once you have them. You want to understand the child's situation and assess whether the IEP is being followed or other actions or information are needed. Use information from the assessments and evaluations to make sure all of the child's relevant special education needs are being addressed.

Share what you can with the team. If court proceedings have included decisions about educational rights for the child, provide copies of those decisions to the school and foster parents.

Empower and support the child's temporary caregivers to get involved in the child's education. As explained above, caregivers may have an important role to play.

If You Think a Child Needs an IEP
Some children have a need for special education services that hasn't been identified yet. Many things can hamper our ability to recognize when children in foster care have educational needs. Moves between schools, delayed transfer of records, and lack of knowledge about the child's learning abilities can all contribute to under-identification of their need for special education services or an IEP (Zetlin, 2006).

Keep in mind, however, that poor academic performance doesn't necessarily indicate special education services are needed. Frequent changes in schools and classrooms--a common experience for kids in foster care--is correlated with poor educational outcomes. If a child exhibits poor academic achievement, the only sure way to identify the underlying cause is educational testing (Scherr, 2007). Here are the steps to take if you suspect a child has learning differences and might benefit from an IEP.

Review the child's records. Seek deeper insight into the child's performance, especially if the child shows significant behavioral problems in school. Many times school behavior issues actually stem from academic struggle. This is especially problematic for children in foster care, since teachers and administrators may attribute the behavior exclusively to trauma and the placement experience rather than consider learning difficulties as a possible cause.

Get the child a physical. Testing for learning difficulties should always begin with a thorough physical exam, preferably with a developmental pediatrician. The exam should include hearing and vision tests, as these can be a cause of poor academic performance in young children who do not have a readily apparent disability. If everything checks out with the physical...

Email the principal. Your message should identify the child, state that there is an educational concern, explain what the concern is, and ask what the process is to get the child tested. This should trigger "child find" activities, which are federally-mandated efforts to identify and assess children who might have disabilities.

Be persistent when pursuing this process. There are professional diagnosticians out there--seek them out. Stick-to-itiveness can be very helpful when trying to get children evaluated.

Assisting Children Not in Traditional Public Schools
Charter schools. Because they are public schools, charter schools are required by law to provide the evaluative testing and supportive services (including IEPs) offered in traditional public schools.

Private schools. If a child in foster care is currently enrolled in a private school and has or is suspected to have special educational needs, the public school the child would have otherwise attended must evaluate the child, perform federally-mandated "child find" activities, and maintain records of that child. However, that public school is under no obligation to provide special education services to the child. Public school systems do sometimes offer a few limited services to private school students with special educational needs, but this is not required.

Homeschool. Same as for private schools.

These resources can help if you suspect learning may be an issue for a child:

Beware of Potentially Problematic IEP Practices

Schools usually work hard to ensure everyone on the IEP team gets a chance to have input on the development of goals and objectives and the services to be provided to the child. There are times, however, when practices related to development of IEPs do not adhere to the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Fortunately, these practices are not common, but you should still be aware of them. Be alert to the following:

  • The school presents an IEP that makes no mention of the child's individual needs. Instead, it seems to be a one-size-fits-all IEP for all children with a particular disability. Such a plan would be a violation of the requirement that the plan be individualized to the child's particular needs.

  • An IEP that fails to provide detail on a child's current level of performance. For example, if you don't know the grade level the child is reading at currently, you will not be able to monitor whether the child has made academic progress a year from now. You need that baseline data.

  • An IEP that relies solely on vague, general goals such as "improve reading levels" without a quantifiable measure (such as "to a sixth grade level"). IEP goals must be measurable or you will have no objective way to determine whether the child is making progress.

Excerpted from DO-IT, 2015

References for this and other articles in this issue