Early Signs Show How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Hurting Washington's Foster Youth

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It's hard to say exactly how foster youth are faring through the COVID-19 pandemic, but a new report offers an early glimpse.

One major insight in the report from Treehouse, a Seattle-based organization that supports children through foster care up to age 26: The shift to distance learning was especially hard.

One in four foster students lost ground on their academics after schools shut down, according to the report. More than one-quarter of Treehouse's students reported being "largely disengaged" from school.

Foster youth are particularly vulnerable because they're often moving from place to place; a safe and stable home is not a guarantee. They're also highly connected with the justice system, representing 40% percent of youth in Washington's juvenile rehabilitation system — a trend that Treehouse leaders trace back to the disparate discipline that foster youth receive in school when their trauma and loss is misunderstood.

More than 40% of youth in foster care need special education accommodations. But between mid-March and July, 37% of the foster students with disabilities who Treehouse serves hadn't received any special educational services.

And one in 10 Treehouse students had assessments and meetings about their individualized learning plans delayed since March.

"Some students are thriving in the virtual world, but, by and large, more of them are struggling," Dawn Rains, Treehouse's chief policy and strategy officer said in an interview Tuesday. "We were super concerned ... that 26% had disengaged from school."

Those students, she said, are in touch with Treehouse staffers — which makes her think they're more engaged than other foster youth in Washington to begin with.

Another challenge for foster youth right now: "They are navigating a pandemic where everyone's living in very close quarters with people they maybe don't know as well," Rains said. For many such students, going to a school building during the day gave them and their caretakers a break — but that respite doesn't exist anymore.

Limited information makes it tough to paint a clear picture of foster youth education beyond graduation rates. To continue keeping track, Treehouse just launched another similar survey. Rains said many districts have improved since July, but she's still concerned that some students are disconnected from education.

Here's what we do know: In 2019, 32.6% of students in foster care dropped out of school, and 46.2% of them graduated. Of Washington's students who were not in foster care, 11% dropped out and 81.2% graduated. (These percentages don't add up to 100 because some students continue learning after not graduating on time.)

For foster students, many of the necessary conditions for focusing on school have been in short supply. Twenty-two percent reported needing the basics: Housing. Clothing. Food. And 11% went through a placement change, meaning further disruption.

Of the 7,800 students that received services through Treehouse last school year, 35% were white, 19% were multiracial, 18% were Black, 9% were Native American and another 9% were Latino. One percent were transgender. A quarter received special education services from their schools.

Most of the time, students reach Treehouse through their caseworkers or managers; 81% of youth served by Treehouse were in foster care through Washington state's Department of Children, Youth and Families. The other 19% were under tribal jurisdiction, adopted, or in parental custody or federal custody.

Treehouse also counted on school as a place to connect with students, but the pandemic changed that. So, like many other organizations, Treehouse had to shift gears. It delivered laptops, helped families access the internet, helped students communicate with their teachers and got them virtual tutoring help. There was a virtual summer series where young adults could focus on developing their careers and post-high school plans. And the group expanded its funding for young adults' housing and other basic needs.

Despite the challenges, some students have hit important milestones during the pandemic. Treehouse's Graduation Success program reported that 152 out of 221 seniors graduated from high school on time in 2020. Rains said that number was similar to last year's.

"Graduating is important to me because I'm going to be the first one of my family to finish high school," said a Garfield High School student identified in the report as Gustavo. "I see myself graduating from Seattle University in engineering and, hopefully, be someone who's inspirational for my community and back in my home country."

The group claimed some legislative wins in 2020 as well, including a $100 increase in the monthly stipend foster parents receive per child. And juvenile detention and rehabilitation institutions can no longer use solitary confinement.

"When we were in foster care, we felt that we were alone," the report quotes Faraji Blakeney, a foster care alumnus, as saying. "But why did it take prison for us to find out that we're not alone?"

Caretakers told Treehouse that they, too, need more support.

"They are really pushed to their max," especially if the household has a lot of kids that range widely in age, Rains said. "You're navigating different academic and developmental levels of having to engage with online learning."

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