Speech

Speech Auditor Suzanne Bump Speaks at the Massachusetts School Committee and Massachusetts School Superintendents "Day on the Hill"

Auditor calls for action to improve educational services for students in foster care,
5/01/2019
  • Office of the State Auditor
  • Division of Local Mandates
Auditor Bump speaking to school committee members and superintendents in Boston.

I am very excited to have been invited to join you here today to talk a bit about a report by my Division of Local Mandates on the challenges you face in providing educational services to children in state care.

The bottom line is that state government needs to shoulder the financial burden of educating the children in its system of foster care and state care, and it needs to collaborate with you to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes for these children.

This work could not and, in fact, would not have been done without the input and other assistance we received from many in this audience, including:

  • Glenn Koocher (MASC Executive Director);
  • Tom Scott (MASS Executive Director); and
  • Individual Superintendents and School Committee members from across the Commonwealth.

As State Auditor, I am expected to approach the work of my office, whether it is auditing, public assistance fraud investigation, state services privatization reviews, or local mandate determinations with objectivity and independence. It is a serious obligation, to stand outside the fray and call ‘em like you see ‘em…

And, I am committed to fulfilling that responsibility as a public official….

Still, when it comes to matters involving vulnerable children and whether the state is meeting its commitment to protect, educate and care for them, it is hard to remain dispassionate. So it has been with our past audits of the Department of Children and Families, which I regard as the most impactful work this office has done during my tenure.

These audits have brought about:

  • Better DCF access to and use of use of medical data  to better detect possible abuse;
  • Regular medical screenings of kids in state care;
  • Expanded policies for the reporting of sexual abuse; and
  • More accountability for reporting critical incidents and incidents that warrant criminal prosecution.

So it was with this report that I strengthened my commitment to seeing that it becomes another tool for advocates of children, like yourselves, to use to promote better outcomes for kids in foster care and state care.

I will tell you why. It is because I know a boy named Isaac. In August he told his mother, a friend of mine, that he couldn’t wait to return to school one September. It wasn’t because he was bored, or wanted to see a favorite teacher or bus driver. It was because that year, for the first time ever, he was going back to the same school building that he had been in the previous school year. He was going to have educational continuity.

Isaac and his two sisters entered my friend’s life in August of 2017 when they were in DCF care and were 8, 6, and 4 years old respectively. Already they had lived, sometimes together, sometimes apart, in several different settings. Now they were with a woman who was determined to raise them together as a “forever family.”

To see the kids together was then, and is, a joy. Both their parents suffered from addiction problems. In fact, their father died of an overdose shortly after being taken in by my friend. Their older sister was and is in the custody of their grandmother.

They did not exhibit symptoms of exposure to trauma. If they were atypical in their behaviors it was in the care with which they treated one another, their co-operative play, the ways they found to entertain themselves without electronics. They were engaging and engaged with the world around them.

Isaac, in particular, was an extremely curious 8 year-old, eager to learn. But he had not been provided with the tools he needed to get the answers to all his questions, because he had not learned to read.

In kindergarten, living with his father, he had missed more than 80 days of school; in first grade, in a different school, it was the same. For second grade he was with a foster family, and they gave him a stable life, but he was in a different school and he was falling behind.

When he was taken in by my friend, the school district allowed him to move up into 3rd grade, even though he did not even sight read. He struggled, and struggles still, even with the remediation he receives. Despite this, Isaac loves to go to school. And he and his family are determined that he ultimately will master the foundational skills it takes to succeed academically.

So I am in invested too in seeing that every Isaac, and you know well that there are thousands of them, has the same opportunity to learn and succeed that children in more stable families have.

The report released last week explains that there are approximately 6,800 children in foster care settings who are enrolled in your schools and the challenges they face. Many arrive in your offices without notice, without school records, and without funding for the transportation and other costs that their presence typically engenders.

Our review, however, does not just explain the problem, but also makes a number of recommendations, which we arrived at with the input of your organizations and that of other child welfare advocates.

We recommend that as lawmakers debate the future of educational funding in the Commonwealth, action that improves the well-being of these students must be a part of any legislation.

We conclude that the state should pick up the full cost of educating these students, relieving local school districts of the burdensome and often fruitless task of determining which district should pay for the services required for a given child. It is a waste of your resources, since it necessitates a costly bureaucracy, and it places the majority of this burden on communities that can least afford it.

Money alone will not fix this problem though. We believe the bureaucracies at DCF and DESE, who are ultimately responsible for children in state care, must change their ways too. We need to expand training for social workers and other interested parties to help them more effectively make best-interest determinations for these students.

We need to create a dynamic list of students in foster care and their educational individual programs that is immediately updated to notify schools of new placements. An Electronic Backpack program can provide educators with all the relevant information about the educational needs of that student, so that precious time is not wasted seeking records and determining how a child’s educational and other needs can best be met.

Finally, we must address the transportation challenges that make it harder to get these students to the classroom. Transportation costs for these students drain school district budgets and consume valuable time from social workers.

We have to get this right. If we do not provide these students with a strong academic foundation, it is not only a failure of governance, it is a moral failure of government.

It is also a failure that will cost us financially down the road in the shape of increased social services spending and incarceration expenses.

I thank each of you for what you do every single day to support all of the students in the Commonwealth, but I want to particularly thank you for your commitment to these students in foster care.

For many of these students, your presence and that of teachers in your schools in the lives of these students is too often the only stable adult presence they have. You are their role models, their sounding boards, and their source of continuity. Your actions in the State House today, advocating for education in the Commonwealth will make an important difference, but the day-to-day impact you and your teachers have on these students is just as important.

Office of the State Auditor 

The Office of State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump (OSA) conducts audits, investigations, and studies to promote accountability and transparency, improve performance, and make government work better.

Division of Local Mandates 

DLM responds to requests from local government leaders to determine if a state law is an unfunded mandate on municipalities. In addition, we serve as a source of information on issues harming municipal budgets, and provide recommendations to address those issues.
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