Volunteers step in to help children who have nobody

Educational decision-makers direct students’ schooling and help keep them on track to graduate.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Darryl Murphy

Thousands of children and teenagers in the juvenile care system in Philadelphia are waiting to find a loving home with an adoptive family or to return to their own.

Many of these youths are shuffled around the city and state, from foster home to foster home, facility to facility, living in constant disruption and unable to make significant progress in their development.

Many have no parent or guardian available to push to get them the education they deserve as they’re moved from place to place and transferred from school to school.

“Education, and especially special education, are very parent-driven processes,” said Kate Burdick, staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center. “So when a student doesn’t have someone in their life who either is a technical parent or acting as a parent for purposes of directing their education, it is all the more likely they are going to fall between the cracks and fall behind.”

The consequences of this lagging can be dire. According to the most recent studies, less than 60 percent of students in foster care graduate from high school by age 19, compared to nearly 90 percent of all young people. In higher education, the numbers are even more shocking: Only 4 percent of students who grow up in the foster care system graduate from college by age 26.

To help remedy the situation, Pennsylvania changed its Juvenile Court rules in 2011. Now, if a court is deciding how to handle a foster child and the child has no available parent – due to a lack of involvement or legal restriction – or guardian, an educational decision-maker must be appointed to assist the child.

Educational decision-makers push for an appropriate education for the child, help to negotiate their Individualized Education Programs if IEPs are needed, ensure the plans are working, and help them enroll in college, among many other responsibilities.

The idea for the EDM program emerged because many foster children weren’t being properly educated.

“We saw a lot of young people who couldn’t pass a college entrance exam or who couldn’t fill out a job application because their reading skills were so minimal,” said Terrill Carney, supervisor of educational decision-makers at Court Appointed Special Advocates of Philadelphia (CASA) of Philadelphia County. “We thought, who has been paying attention to this child all this time?”

The answer was no one.

So, CASA stepped in to fill the gap. The organization arranges for volunteer CASAs to be a third party between the state and foster children in Juvenile Court.

Five years ago, CASA began its educational decision-maker program on a trial basis to see whether it would be effective in addressing the education needs of foster children in detail. Just last summer, thanks to a grant from Impact 100, a group of 350-plus Philadelphia-area women who give collectively, CASA was able to expand the program. But the demand greatly outstrips the organization’s capacity.

“We’re trying to fill a gap that’s way too big for us to fill alone,” said Happi Grillon, executive director of CASA of Philadelphia.

With only 30 educational decision-makers, or EDMs, right now, some of whom handle three or more cases, the small organization is overwhelmed – which reflects a problem across Pennsylvania. There simply aren’t enough EDMs for all the foster children who need one.

“We really try to encourage everybody to think about who is the natural EDM in their family, so you don’t have to get another person involved,” Grillon said. “But there are definitely cases – and we have many, many, many, many of them – where there isn’t anybody to do that effectively, so our program fills a void for those kids.”

How many foster homes?

Travis (not his real name), 16, has been in his new foster home for a little over a month. CASA began working with him three years ago, and Carney was his EDM until he began helping other EDMs manage their cases. Though Carney assigned him to another EDM, he still checks in on Travis.

A soft-spoken teen with a stocky build, Travis said he’s been in the juvenile care system for 10 years. From what he can recall, he’s been in three congregate care facilities (a setting that provides 24-hour supervision for children in highly structured settings such as group homes, child-care institutions, and residential treatment facilities) and two mental hospitals, for anger issues.

As for actual foster homes, Travis said he has lost count. And each change in a foster home usually means a change in schools – and a disruption in educational continuity.

Rules differ from school district to school district. Schools don’t agree on curriculum or courses, and transferring credits is cumbersome. Pennsylvania has 500 school districts.

Over the years, Travis has had behavioral issues. When he was younger, he said, he liked to fight “over the dumbest things,” but as of this fall, he hadn’t been in any fights for more than a year. He said he is enjoying his current school – a charter high school in Philadelphia. This is his ninth school since entering the court system.

After graduation, Travis said, he wants to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and join the military, because it will give him discipline. In the meantime, he says, working with his EDM has helped him stay on the right path toward his goals.

“If I didn’t have them,” Travis said, “I probably wouldn’t be in school. I know that for sure. I’d probably go back to the old me, not caring about school or anything.”

He asked Carney to be his male mentor, because his caretakers have been women and “some things you can’t talk to a female about that you can talk to a male about.”

Carney agreed to mentor him, and he has set up a time for an upcoming visit.

‘Blowing my mind’

Arlene Elfman, a former teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, is an educational decision-maker volunteer through CASA.

After more than 30 years of teaching, Elfman said her experience as an EDM has given her a better understanding of student behavior that at times makes teachers want to “pull their hair out.”

“As a teacher, you’re not aware of all the problems they’ve gone through,” she said before meeting her fourth student as an EDM. “All the problems they’ve had. Now I can see the full extent; it’s blowing my mind.”

These realizations are at the core of CASA’s training for EDMs, Carney said. Their role centers on creating educational stability for the students in unstable living situations. In some instances, EDMs have to fight for students’ rights to attend schools that may not be very welcoming to them.

In addition, some students in the juvenile care system have special needs, and empathy for their situation is crucial.

“They have to have someone who at least has a context of who this kid is, and the life of that kid,” Carney said. “When you’re going to a meeting and really speaking about that educational success, you at least should know where they come from and who [you’re] advocating for.”

EDM volunteers receive 32 hours of initial training in Individualized Education Plan, IEP, special education laws, advocacy tools, and more. Training continues quarterly throughout the year in four- to six-hour sessions.

Staying in touch

Once a student finds an adoptive home, is united with the parent or guardian, or graduates from high school, the EDM’s job is done – on paper, at least. Some students keep in touch with their EDMs because they’ve played such a key role in their lives.

“We ask a lot of them, so we want to make sure we are bringing volunteers who are committed to it,” Grillon said, “because we don’t want them to be another person who meets a kid, then disappoints them. We don’t want to contribute to that.”

Though the CASA EDM program is proving to be effective, it is small and its growth is slow. Grillon said CASA is cautious about taking on new cases because some EDM volunteers are already handling multiple cases and Carney is taking on additional duties in helping to manage the volunteers.

Still, she said, it is important for people to be aware of how a good-quality education, or lack thereof, can affect the life of a child in the juvenile care system. When children don’t get the help or resources they need in school, the problem can cause complications in their already-unstable living situations.

“When there is not an appropriate day program that is meeting the child’s needs and educating them, everything can be discombobulated,” Grillon said. “Because when you’re a child, that’s your job, to be in school. When that’s not going well, it ripple-effects through everything.”

If you are interested in volunteering with CASA, visit casaphiladelphia.org.

Darryl Murphy is a staff reporter and photographer at the Notebook.