Indiana may be underestimating the number of students in foster care, advocates say

A recent state report showed that children in foster care lag behind their peers when it comes to academics. But the problem could be even worse than that study suggested, some advocates for foster students say.

At a press conference Tuesday, Brent Kent, CEO of the foster youth advocacy group Indiana Connected By 25, said that the state’s education and child services departments appear to have undercounted by thousands the number of foster students. He cited federal data pointing to significantly more than the nearly 9,000 school-age foster children that the recent study cited.

State officials, however, did not say whether they believe their data was incomplete, so it’s unclear how — and how much — undercounting may have happened. A Department of Education spokesman, Adam Baker, noted that this is a first-of-its-kind report, and as such, “you’re going to have consistency issues, you’re going to have accuracy issues, and the whole goal is to sort of come back to the drawing board … and say ‘how can we work together to ensure this is even more accurate moving forward?’”

Kent said that a precise accounting is needed to pinpoint where the problems are and how to address them.

“On a very basic level these are the state’s own children … the state ought to know who they are, where they go to school, how they are doing and whether or not they are on-track to graduate,” Kent said, adding that the report may be underestimating the disparities between students who are in foster care and the general student population. “The graduation rate might be a lot lower, the percent in chronically failing and underperforming schools might be a lot higher.”

Kent is asking the state to verify its data and to ensure its collection is accurate in the future.

Baker said schools provide data on foster students. The report, he said, drew on that, in addition to information from the child services department. The state Department of Child Services did not respond to a request for comment.

The report, required under a new Indiana law, looked at 8,804 public school students in foster care, and found that they are more likely to attend under-performing schools and that only 64 percent graduate from high school, compared to 88 percent statewide.

Data from the Department of Child Services show that as of 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, about 31,000 foster youth live in Indiana, though it’s unclear how many of them are school age. Federal statistics from a different data snapshot in 2016 showed that Indiana was home to about 11,000 foster children between the ages of 6 and 20.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the House Education Committee, said he was troubled that students in foster care are not keeping pace with their peers. He also expressed concern over the report’s possible undercounting of the foster population.

“There’s no question that we need to provide more stability for these most vulnerable youth,” said Behning, a Republican from Indianapolis.

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 study showed. In Indiana, the number of foster children rose 60 percent between 2012 and 2016 — the second-steepest climb in the nation, according to federal data. The state’s opioid crisis is a factor, as many foster children come from families dealing with the effects of drug addiction.

Slated to be presented to the Indiana State Board of Education next week, the report also showed that 40 percent of students in foster care attend schools rated C, D, or F, while just under 30 percent of all Indiana students attend schools with such ratings. Additionally, 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.

Kent said he wants lawmakers to study how state agencies can work better together and determine the educational resources that foster students need to succeed.

Demetrees Hutchins, a researcher from Indiana University and a former foster child, said that while she was concerned that the study had inaccuracies, it still “shined a light” on how foster students and foster students of color — who make up 25 percent of foster children — are doing in school.

“This report is very startling,” Hutchens said. “I hope that moving forward we can work together with the Department of Education as well as the Department of Child Services to get more accurate numbers of exactly what’s going on.”