What steps need to be taken to ensure that the educational needs of wards are met while in Department care?

Children learn best when provided with a safe, stable, nurturing school environment where they receive help and guidance from caring adults. In the overwhelming majority of cases, this has not been the experience of most children who come into the care of the Department. These children and youth have faced enormous educational challenges which may be rooted in their experience of abuse or neglect and exacerbated by multiple relocations after entering foster care. They fall behind in their schoolwork, miss valuable days or weeks of school, and fail to build relationships with their teachers and peers.

When a child’s placement requires a change in school districts, the perception of him or her as only a temporary student can make it impractical for adults to get involved and to advocate for appropriate educational services. As a result, many children and youth have not received the educational services for which they are eligible. Young children who are at-risk of academic failure have not received preschool services and school-aged children who would be eligible for special education services are under-represented. When legally mandated parent surrogates are appointed to advocate for children and youth who are eligible for these services, they often are not adequately prepared to do so.


Much of the Department’s work in the area of education has its roots in recommendations made by the DCFS Education Task Force, a panel of individuals charged with determining what attitudes, knowledge, and skills were needed by caseworkers and caregivers to allow them to be effective educational advocates for the children in their care. As the Task Force began its work, the dire educational circumstances of these children became increasingly evident. Their final report, issued in November 1995, provided a framework for systemic change.


Youth for whom the Department is responsible are expected to be enrolled in school or training programs until they graduate or reach age eighteen. The Department’s Education Initiatives emphasize early identification of problems which will impact a child’s future success in school. We believe that early investment of resources will improve future outcomes. From early childhood through the high school years, the attention of caseworkers and caregivers to educational progress is critical.

Among the Department’s educational priorities is improving the placement stability of children and youth in care. Beginning in FY98, the Department established performance contracting criteria related to placement stability for all relative foster care contracts in Cook, challenging substitute care providers to reduce "step-up" moves and transfers between private agencies or between private agencies and DCFS substantially. In the first year, the targeted move patterns were reduced by one-half. During the second year, the Department reduced moves by one-half again. This aggressive approach to establishing stability for children is expected to have a dramatic impact on the success of children in school.

The Department has a comprehensive system of technical assistance and support in place designed to improve educational outcomes for children of all ages.

  • Developmental Screens are provided to all children under age 5 in DCFS care to ensure that they are developing as expected or referred for services in order to enhance school readiness.

Since April 1998, approximately 600 infants and toddlers have been screened and placed in services as appropriate through the DCFS Developmental Screening Center, a collaborative project between DCFS and the Cook County Bureau of Health Services. Over the next two years, it is anticipated that an additional 3,500 in Cook County will be screened.

In the last year and a half, through a collaboration between DCFS and the Chicago Public Schools, over 2,000 children aged 3-5 have been screened and referred to services which include HeadStart, State Pre-K, and Pre-K Special Education programs. An additional 1,162 pre-school aged children have received developmental screen through collaborative projects with the Chicago Public school CHILDFIND initiative, and each child is tracked to enrollment by DCFS Early Childhood staff.

Since April 1998, 1,845 infants and toddlers have participated in the DCFS Birth to Three Services Project, receiving developmental screens at one of the Department’s four developmental screening centers. Of those seen, 54% exhibit some form of developmental delay, and each is tracked to enrollment in services to which they are referred by Project staff. Beginning in November 1998, each new case of an infant being brought into care received this service as a part of their comprehensive assessment, thereby integrating developmental needs into the initial stages of the case planning process. Project staff track each case to enrollment in a customized package of Early Childhood services designed to promote school readiness and stabilize placements. Over the next year, Project staff will propose a downstate pilot.

  • The Department’s day care policies are currently undergoing final revisions to ensure that day care is viewed not only as a benefit to working foster parents but also as an important child development service. Through collaboration with DHS and Chicago Public Schools, priority status for day care placements is being given to many DCFS infants and preschoolers who are at risk for future academic failure. DCFS has budgeted $1.5 million to support this agreement. Another collaboration with the Cook County Child Care Resource and Referral Network, working foster parents who are caring for children determined to be educationally at risk will receive a specialized list of referrals to high quality day care options.

  • The DCFS Educational Access Project with Northern Illinois University has resulted in significant educational gains which benefit children and youth in the Department’s care. Through this project, DCFS has established a venue for technical assistance related to educational issues.

  • Active Participation from Caseworkers and Caregivers is one of the Department’s highest priorities related to education. The individuals closest to our children must be the strongest advocates for their needs. Caseworkers are required to visit the schools of their children four times a year and actively participate in educational planning.

  • "Promoting Future Success Training", focusing on staff responsibilities related to education and transition, was recently provided to all DCFS and private agency caseworkers, supervisors, administrative case reviewers, LAN Liaisons, and specific managerial staff statewide.

  • Juvenile Court, Chicago Public School, and DCFS Collaboration. As a result of this collaboration all Chicago Public Schools, principals, social workers, and counselors have received training on DCFS’s education procedures, DCFS investigatory and child welfare functions.

  • A system of Education Advisors, funded by DCFS and administered by NIU, provides ongoing support for staff and foster parents. During the summer of 1998, the Department invested an additional $1.3 million for Fiscal Year 1999 in private agency Home of Relative and Traditional Foster Care contracts to fund Educational Liaisons to provide additional educational support for their foster parents and children. In addition, the Department also pays for legal representation as necessary to support the educational needs of children and youth in care.

  • Reductions in School Disruptions result in better academic performance. Collaborative relationships have been established with Chicago Public Schools, One Church One Child, and the Chicago Public Schools Interfaith Partnership to recruit foster and adoptive homes in areas of greatest need. This Initiative is designed to promote better educational outcomes for children and youth in foster care by increasing the number of foster homes within a child’s home school district.

  • School Involvement in Local Area Networks. LANs and the Chicago Public Schools created their own LAN model which includes two full-time LAN Coordinators and 13 school social workers who serve as representatives to the LANs. These representatives train school personnel on the WRAP process and planning assistance to ensure that children and youth receive WRAP services within their own school prior to community referrals. As a result of this initiative there has been a significant number of WRAP Plans for wards and non-wards initiated for the local schools. In addition, the educational component of WRAP Plans now include services from the Chicago Public Schools.

  • Consultation/Collaboration between DCFS Cook County Educational Staff and Chicago Public Schools’ Crisis Intervention Teams. As a result of these collaborative efforts, planning regarding clinical needs and resources (including funeral and burial) have been provided around traumatic incidents such as rape, aggravated assault, and death that occur at or around schools.

  • DCFS Cook County Educational Staff has developed a newsletter, CAPS Strive, which is a newsletter targeted toward educational liaisons in order to inform them about current resources available on all aspects of education.

  • The DCFS Truancy Initiative targets youth enrolled in Chicago Public Schools who are chronically absent or truant from school. On a monthly basis, CPS provides DCFS with data of students under DCFS’ care who have been identified as truant. This information is sent to the youth’s caseworker so that problem-solving can occur between the caseworker, school, foster parents, and child to re-enroll and stabilize the youth in school. In addition, a truancy protocol has been developed whereby DCFS workers can contact CPS Regional Truancy Staff when school-based efforts have been unsuccessful.

  • Barriers to school enrollment and stabilization statewide are tracked by DCFS Education Advisors and private agency Education Liaisons.

  • The Department is working with the Chicago Public Schools and the Alternative Schools Network to ensure that Alternative Education Options are available to meet the diverse needs of those DCFS wards who are at high risk of academic failure.

  • DCFS and the Chicago Public Schools have developed a protocol which ensures that appropriate educational services are provided to those children and youth who are "stepping down" from residential facilities and group homes into foster care placements in Chicago. Similar procedures are being developed statewide with school districts and the Illinois State Board of Education.

  • A referral for tutoring is now required for youth whose grades have fallen below a C average.

  • The High School Diploma is the preferred certificate of secondary completion. DCFS wards may be enrolled in a GED program only if they are ineligible to be enrolled in the public school district.

  • College attendance is encouraged by routine payment of preparatory education expenses, including college books and school fees, tuition for trade schools, required special class supplies, graduation expenses, ACT/SAT examination fees, college application fees, deposits for college room and board expenses. In addition, 48 scholarships are available to current and former DCFS wards each year.

  • Vocational and Career Planning are required for all adolescents in DCFS care. At least by the freshman year in high school, formalized planning, high school credits, and relevant job preparation must be included in the youth’s service plan. In the case of youth who are receiving special education services, school districts are legally required to develop their own transition plans which lead to post-secondary employment or continuing education beginning at age 14 .


At this point, the Department’s efforts have been process oriented. We’ve been focusing on defining policy, setting up service delivery strategies, and training staff and caregivers regarding the importance of educational success. Outside of this effort, our goals are not well defined or operationalized. In very broad terms, our goals could be described as follows:

  • Increase the number of children working at grade level;

  • Decrease truancy; and

  • Increase graduation rates.

One of the most difficult aspects of ensuring that our children’s educational needs are met is that of determining where the responsibilities of the Department end and the school’s begin. This has been the subject of much discussion over the past year.