Legally, there is no such thing as educational neglect. It is, quite simply, not a recognized type of child abuse. Education is necessary for finding the best outcomes for youth, but when it comes to finding children shelter and food and parents, education tends to fall to the bottom of the list and then to fall through the cracks. The child welfare system exists for the purpose of keeping children safe, and when it comes to safety, it is hard for education to be a top priority in this overburdened system.
However, speaking up for the best interest of children, and not just their safety, means that education is a top priority for CASA. Having just one volunteer on one case means that we are fortunate enough to be able to focus not just on immediate safety, but on a lifetime of outcomes. For children, especially children from hard places, education is liberation, so for CASA volunteers, educational advocacy is key. It is of such importance for youth outcomes that Travis County’s family court judges specifically name CASA volunteers as Education Advocates when they are appointed to a case.
School is hard for any child. Balancing classes and homework with clubs and social lives is difficult enough to manage in the best of situations. For children involved in the child welfare system, engaging and succeeding in school presents much greater challenges. Fear, depression and insecurity lead to emotional issues that make it difficult to focus in class and can cause larger behavioral issues. When a child is dealing with the trauma of abuse, has to change homes and schools, or is uncertain of where they might be sleeping, it is easy to see how they fall behind in school. A CASA volunteer has to see beyond the trauma and chaos to help the child succeed in spite of their situation.
Educational advocacy means doing everything we can to ensure that a child in care has the same opportunity to thrive in school as any other child. Just like every other form of advocacy, it takes a different form in each case.
For children receiving special education services, being an Education Advocate means attending meetings with the school to create an Individualized Education Plan, which determines what modifications and accommodations the school must make to meet a child’s specific needs. It means working with the child’s lawyer when their rights aren’t being met.
For children who have just moved schools, being an Education Advocate means meeting with the school officials to make sure teachers and staff understand what children are dealing with and how to best respond to behavior issues so that kids aren’t suspended for an outburst that would never have happened if they had a fidget toy or a snack or a five minute break. It means making sure that the school has all of the paperwork they need because sometimes it takes weeks or even months for the files to transfer over and by that point the child has fallen behind because they missed out on services they need. It means talking with the child to make sure they understand the rules and expectations of the new school.
Educational advocacy means meeting with counselors and teachers and assistant principals to keep up to date on how a child is doing. Sometimes it means helping with homework of finding a tutor. It means setting high expectations for children and helping them to meet them. It means talking with the child’s therapists to come up with ideas for how difficult behavior can be managed in the academic setting and it means listening to the child and giving them a voice to tell you what they need.
Children in the child welfare system don’t have a parent to speak up for them and ensure they have what they need in school and the system is not built to meet that need. If support for those needs isn’t available, children are likely to fall further and further behind in school. CASA volunteers fill many roles for the children they serve, but the role of Education Advocate is always a priority. It’s a way we affirm our commitment to these children that we are not willing to settle for them simply being safe.