How Greater Continuity Can Help the Millions of Students Rotating Through Social Services

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This essay is part of a series written by leading education practitioners in response to a Carnegie Corporation of New York report on improving education equity by addressing fragmentation.

Monica had her first encounter with child protective services in the middle of eighth grade, after her father got addicted to pain pills following a spinal surgery. Her mom, sick with terminal cancer, was unable to care for her. What began as a 30-day emergency placement in a group home turned into more than three years of bouncing among foster homes, group homes, attempts at family reunification, time spent in juvenile justice facilities, and homelessness. 

At 17, Monica (not her real name) has now been in six different schools in three counties across two states, and she’s growing increasingly frustrated with the systems meant to support her. She says: “Every time I move, I never have what I need. Things like my birth certificate: my social workers think I’ll lose it so they don’t let me keep it, but then I can never get it from them when I need it.” 

Unfortunately, Monica’s experience is hardly unusual. At any given point in time, about 5 million kids are served in one or more of our nation’s child service agencies. While these agencies provide invaluable supports for such young people, the fragmentation and lack of coordination that often exists among them can also exacerbate the already significant difficulties they contend with. More often than not, such agencies are not even communicating with each other.

This puts children in the tough position of having to make sense of a fragmented world of adults, programs, and agencies. Indeed, in these patchworked systems, the only persons with full knowledge of their circumstances are the ones least prepared to navigate through them — the young persons themselves.

In many of the states and districts we partner with, we see how the most vulnerable young people — those in need of social services — typically lack a consistent advocate.

As a policy and research group committed to improving the lives of underserved youth, we at Bellwether Education Partners have long been aware of this largely hidden problem. In many of the states and districts we partner with, we see how the most vulnerable young people — those in need of social services — typically lack a consistent advocate. 

With a grant from the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York, we’ve been able to help do something about this. We have launched partnerships with agencies at different levels of government in three states, to help them develop plans to create a more integrated set of services for the young people they serve. The three agencies are the Utah State Board of Education, the El Dorado County Office of Education in California, and the Orleans Parish School Board in Louisiana.

This project is part of a larger Carnegie Corporation initiative, the Integration Design Consortium (IDC). The IDC is premised on the idea that efforts to improve the lives of young people are too often pursued in isolation, and with an incomplete understanding of their circumstances. The result is that well-intentioned programs and strategies produce fewer benefits than hoped for, because they weren’t a good fit for the realities in which they were implemented. More on the IDC, and the thinking behind it, is in a new Carnegie Corporation report, From Fragmentation to Coherence: How more integrative ways of working could accelerate improvement and progress toward equity in education.

As an example of how our IDC project is playing out, here is what’s happening in El Dorado County. In this high-country community east of Sacramento, we learned quickly that the existing “system” relies heavily on the knowledge and experience of a single person: Sheila Silan. Sheila leads both the foster youth education support systems and the student attendance review board in El Dorado County. Sheila is also a member of this small rural community herself. 

With 30 years in the county office of education and as a foster parent, Sheila has deep knowledge of the families, schools, and students. One county leader summed it up by saying: “We have a system in place for quickly gathering information about a student, and that system is Sheila.” He’s being honest, though he knows that’s not a serious solution.

While Sheila has helped support hundreds of El Dorado County’s children and young adults, the county needs a more formalized system that meets the needs of the young people it serves. 

To ensure that any solutions we develop directly address the challenges that young people face, our work in El Dorado County entailed a concerted effort to understand the experiences of the young people in the systems from their points of view. That meant talking to the very people who are impacted by agency fragmentation: the children and youth — like Monica — served by these agencies. We also talked to the direct-care providers working in various agencies. 

Based on these interviews, we identified two key levers for change: continuity of people and continuity of information. By designating a single adult to operate like a child’s “chief of staff,” we can mitigate the need for a child to interact with a myriad of adults. By improving data collection, sharing, and storage, we can reduce the burdens on youth and their caregivers that result from missing or incorrect information.

Now the Bellwether team is working with El Dorado County to create a plan for the future that turns Sheila and the other informal networks and work-arounds that exist into institutionally supported practices. We’ve worked closely with local leaders representing law enforcement, the courts, human services, schools, and more in order to build a shared understanding of purpose and vision. Together, these leaders are considering the development of a formally staffed office and a countywide data warehouse that will ease communication obstacles, aggregate data over time to inform policy, and identify where care agencies can intervene earlier to prevent some of the challenges that arise when a child’s needs go unmet. 

The silos that exist among such agencies did not appear overnight and will not disappear quickly. Eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, the fragmentation among schools, government agencies, law enforcement, nonprofits, and community-based organizations is possible only with deliberate effort over a long period of time. 

But doing so is necessary if we ever hope to provide youth with a cohesive, streamlined system of support throughout their education trajectories.

Hailly T. N. Korman, a civil rights attorney, is a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners where she leads work focused on supporting education agencies as they serve students who have experienced disruptions to their education pathways, with a special focus on young people involved in the juvenile justice system.