The January 2018 document replaced a policy document published by DCF in 2014. While the previous DCF policy (Policy #97-002) had specific and detailed procedures on the steps its staff should follow to support the educational needs of children in DCF’s care, the joint guidance restates some responsibilities and is written in clearer language. The responsibilities for local districts and DCF field staff are documented in detail and include:
- local district foster care point-of-contact responsibility to obtain education records and information,
- cooperation among all parties to make a best-interest determination as to whether to enroll the child in a new district,
- DCF staff identification of the appropriate educational or special education decision-maker for the child, and
- cooperation among “the parties who are best situated to understand the child’s unique needs.”
However, some critical policies have not been implemented fully or are inconsistently implemented by DCF’s regional and area offices and local school districts. As a result, relationships between school districts and DCF vary from area to area within the Commonwealth. For example, Springfield is very positive about the relationship the district has with the DCF field offices. However, other school districts reported that they were not made aware when a foster care student was placed in or removed from a school district. In some cases, districts have not been provided with pertinent educational information for students or allowed to meaningfully participate in the best-interest-of-the-child determinations regarding educational placements. Many districts emphasized that interpersonal relationships between the district and DCF staff determined the level of responsiveness that the district received. Inconsistent implementation of DCF policies and procedures results in confusion regarding how decisions are to be made and raises the possibility of conflict among decision-makers.
1. DCF and DESE should jointly provide training to DCF and school district staff on how to collaborate on placement decisions (best-interest determinations) and how student information should flow. Better training by state agencies for participants in the decision-making process for students in foster care can serve both to rationalize the process and to improve cooperation across organizations, thereby resulting in better placements and services for children. DESE informs us they are working on a much needed checklist of steps for the best-interest determination. Through this training, documentation, and ongoing supervision, DCF and DESE management should encourage the establishment of direct communication between counterparts in the field (DCF regional offices and school districts). The current relationship between Springfield and DCF can serve as a model for how these interactions can be managed more consistently across the Commonwealth. If implementation of this recommendation, and those that follow, require additional resources, the legislature should carefully examine those requests to provide support for these essential services.
2. DESE and DCF should encourage the use of Special Education Surrogate or Guardian Ad Litem arrangements for students in foster care. School district personnel report that these arrangements have been of value in protecting and executing IEPs and other education strategies for students. This arrangement is critical, as federal law prohibits the social worker from being a decision-maker regarding special education programs and placements.
3. DCF should encourage proper team “meetings” to make decisions on the special education IEPs for students in foster care per guidance. The guidance document from January 2018 requires “decisions should be made collaboratively by the parties who are best situated to understand the student’s unique needs.” While resource-intense, this level of cooperation is required to meet the needs of the students. While the hope is for consensus, “DCF is considered the final decision maker in making the best interest determination” if there is disagreement, but disagreement assumes consultation.
4. DCF should provide proper written documentation to districts alerting them to the gain or loss of students. This is promised in documents from both DCF and DESE, yet districts frequently do not receive these “LEA” forms. As noted in a prior recommendation under Finding 2, a statewide database of these placements would help correct this information deficiency while providing critical data for more informed decisions about the services needed to support this vulnerable population.
|April 23, 2019