Indiana foster children are less likely to graduate, more likely to be suspended, a new report shows

Indiana now has its first look at how well the state is educating the 9,000 school-age children in foster care, and the findings are discouraging. Foster children are more likely than their peers to attend underperforming schools, and only 64 percent graduate from high school.

The first-of-its-kind report, mandated under a new law, is timely: In Indiana, the number of foster children rose 60 percent between 2012 and 2016 — the second-steepest climb in the nation. The state’s opioid crisis is a factor, as many foster children come from families dealing with the effects of drug addiction.

Brent Kent, the CEO of Indiana Connected By 25, which advocates for foster children, said the study’s findings were “disturbing.”

“These children were removed from their families through no fault of their own, and they should not be denied educational opportunities because of their involvement in the foster care system,” he said.

Foster children, who are more likely than their peers to move frequently and face instability at home, have a harder time on average keeping up with their schoolwork and graduating on-time. (The graduation rate statewide is 88 percent.)

In addition, foster children are more than twice as likely as students outside the foster system to be suspended from school, the study found.

“This population has or does experience instability and stress at home,” the report said. “Trauma can also cause a disruption of the child’s ability to effectively engage in the classroom lessons or manifest as negative behaviors.”

But it shouldn’t be taken for granted that children in foster care can’t thrive in school, according to Kent.

“I think this narrative suggests that we have to accept these outcomes as the way they are,” he said. “I don’t like it.”

The report, which is expected to be presented to the Indiana State Board of Education next week, showed that 40 percent of students in foster care attend schools rated C, D, or F, while a little less than 30 percent of all Indiana students attend schools with such ratings. This is in line with national trends showing those in the foster care system are more likely than their peers to attend lower-performing schools.

While most foster children attend traditional public schools, 5 percent are enrolled at charters — compared to 4.1 percent of all Indiana students.

Kent stressed that the 64 percent graduation rate among foster children is unacceptable. He also noted that one in five foster students are graduating with waivers that let them receive diplomas without having passed state tests, compared to about 8 percent of non-foster students, according to the report.

“Are we really setting them up for success when we’re waiving the requirements for a high school diploma?” he said, adding that foster youth face challenges transitioning to the workforce and are more likely to be homeless and unemployed as adults.

With the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 came new expectations for reporting data on foster youth, with the goal of improving outcomes. Although Indiana did not begin its data collection until after state lawmakers got involved in 2018, it was a necessary step, according to Demetrees Hutchins, a researcher from Indiana University and a former foster child, who testified on the bill last year.

“Implementing this bill makes those in the child welfare system’s job that much easier. It makes those in the education world’s job that much easier,” Hutchins said at the time. “Because we would know where the problems are … and use that data to inform policy- and decision-making.”

This coming summer, the Indiana Department of Education, in consultation with the state Department of Child Services, is expected to develop a plan about how to better serve foster students and help them perform on par with their peers.

Kent said he hopes this report makes Indiana officials pay attention and take foster students’ education seriously, noting: “There’s no one more deserving of our support. They don’t have anyone else.”