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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 21, No. 1
January 2016

DSS and Schools: Working Together to Improve Outcomes

The work our public schools do really matters. Research has shown that education brings wide-ranging benefits to society and to individuals. For instance, adults with more education tend to be healthier, live longer, engage more in civic activities (e.g., voting), and tend to feel happier (Nat'l Poverty Center, 2007; OEDC, 2013). These are definitely the kinds of results we want for young people in foster care.

Efforts to improve educational outcomes for children in the child welfare system often focus on child-specific strategies. This makes sense, but research tells us that if we want to see meaningful, sustainable changes in children's school performance, we also need to improve interagency collaboration between child welfare agencies and schools.

Multiple studies have identified obstacles to successful collaboration between child welfare and schools. These barriers fall into four categories:

1. Lack of trust / adversarial relationships. Several studies have found mistrust at the agency level between schools and child welfare, with each seeing the other as less committed to the well-being of children and at fault for children's poor academic outcomes. Schools and child welfare agencies sometimes believe that the other is purposely withholding useful information from them (Ferguson, 2012; Alsthuler, 2003; Weinberg, 2009; Cox, 2012).

2. Role confusion. Knowing who does what and who is ultimately responsible for the child is a key element of successful collaboration. Unfortunately, child welfare agencies and schools are often confused around topics such as legal rights, decision making, communication, goal setting, and monitoring of student progress (Ferguson, 2012; Weinberg, 2009).

3. Challenges in sharing information. Sometimes child welfare agencies and schools do not understand what can and cannot be shared when it comes to background information, child and family histories, school histories, and ongoing data on school performance and discipline (Ferguson, 2012; Altshuler, 2003). The confidentiality limitations schools and child welfare operate under are very real, but they are not total. When these limitations are exaggerated or poorly understood, collaboration suffers.

4. Lack of understanding of job functions and the laws that govern them. Misinformation and ignorance about different aspects of the jobs performed within the two systems is another major challenge to better outcomes identified by the research literature (Ferguson, 2012; Weinberg, 2009).

Because of differences in county size, local education agency (LEA) structure and leadership, and other factors, solutions for overcoming these barriers will differ from place to place. However, if you want to enhance child welfare-school collaboration in your community, consider the following:

Formal and informal approaches to improving relationships. It's clear efforts need to be made to build relationships both at the agency and individual levels. Possible strategies include (1) creating formal interagency meetings focused on finding common ground and coordinating efforts and (2) outreach by individual caseworkers, such as developing letters of introduction and sending them to each teacher of a child on their caseload at the beginning of the school year (Weinberg, 2009; Ferguson, 2012; Florida Children First, n.d.; Altshuler, 2003).

Clearer roles and expectations. Creating and sharing written expectations is often very helpful. The chart on the following page outlines common responsibilities for leaders in child welfare agency and education leaders. Another strategy to consider is assigning a specific individual at both the school and DSS to be the point of contact. Agencies might also consider tasking specific individuals within DSS to focus on school issues (Weinberg, 2009; Florida Children First, n.d.).

Detailed information sharing agreements. In some communities, schools and child welfare agencies have developed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that spell out what can be shared and with whom. In others, child welfare agencies have created forms for gathering important school information, which is then used to inform placement decisions. Talking openly about the legal issues that cause challenges in data sharing is also helpful, since improved understanding can prevent one agency from unfairly blaming the other when specific information can't be shared (Florida Children First, n.d.; Weinberg 2009; Ferguson, 2012).

Education and cross training. To improve the extent to which their systems understand one another, some communities have held education summits. These can be opportunities to promote collaboration and share key information about educational rights and special education laws. Another strategy is to have staff from each agency shadow each other to better understand their day-to-day experiences. Other ideas include presenting at staff meetings and creating informational materials and presentations that can be shared electronically (Florida Children First, n.d.; Ferguson, 2012).

The poor school outcomes experienced by many children in the child welfare system should motivate and unite us: we must increase our focus on working together. There are barriers, but everyone in both systems has the best interests of children in mind. If we're willing to do what's needed, we can make school success a reality for all children.

References for this and other articles in this issue