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New Juvenile Dependency Court Focuses on Foster Youth Education

By Kristy Luk

The Middle School Education Court (MSEC) in Santa Clara County, California is the first education-focused collaborative juvenile court in the nation. Its mission is to help foster children attain academic success through appropriate educational placements and support.1 It is currently in its final year of a two-year pilot phase.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Teresa Guerrero-Daley

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Teresa Guerrero-Daley, who presides over Santa Clara’s Middle School Education Court.

The court, launched in January 2011, is part of Santa Clara County’s Juvenile Dependency Court. It brings together various child welfare advocates to serve approximately 24 middle school-aged youth. During their time in MSEC, students receive a comprehensive educational needs report and are matched with resources according to the report’s recommendations. For the first time, agencies like the Department of Family and Children’s Services and the Office of Education, among others, are collaborating to ensure that foster children receive the best educational support possible. Though the court is still in its pilot phase, it has already made great strides for the students involved. Some of the participants are receiving special education support that they were not getting before, and others have been identified for gifted and talented programs.

“Education is so important in a foster child’s life. This is something that all judges should be invested in. We spend so much time on their safety and basic needs. It’s time that we recognize education as being equally important,” said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Teresa Guerrero-Daley, who presides over MSEC.

The Collaborative Model

The Santa Clara Juvenile Dependency Court has a long history of developing innovative specialty courts to address the unmet needs of children and their families, according to Vickie Grove, Executive Director of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley. Since 1997, the Santa Clara County Juvenile Dependency Court has been designated a Model Court by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. The MSEC, like other specialty courts, was developed through a system-wide, collaborative process that brings more resources to children and families than traditional courts. While the overarching goal of MSEC is to address educational under-performance of foster youth,it does so by helping all agencies improve their ability to provide direct service and support. Therefore, the subsidiary goals of MSEC are to:

  • Increase collaboration among schools, child welfare, and community partners;
  • Increase awareness of school and community-based resources;
  • Identify gaps in and improve access to resources and services; and
  • Increase awareness and knowledge of social workers, the Juvenile Court, and other stakeholders regarding education-related issues of foster youth.2

Although the model of collaborative courts is not new, focusing specifically on education is a pioneering approach to court collaboration. For Sonja House, Foster Youth Services Coordinator in Santa Clara County, the most exciting part is the collaborative efforts of pulling agencies together to improve outcomes.

The Silicon Valley Children’s Fund, which invests in high-impact programs that help foster youth in Santa Clara County, began the Middle School Education Initiative back in 2007. This initiative, which included the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund, the Child Welfare Agency, Santa Clara County Office of Education, and the Juvenile Court was the precursor to MSEC. It soon became apparent, however, that the collaborative process needed more structure, which was something that the Juvenile Dependency Court could better provide. In response, the court took a greater leadership role and created MSEC. When members of the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund first approached Judge Guerrero-Daley with this idea, she was excited at the prospect of creating a court that would bring together the expertise of agencies working with foster youth. Judge Guerrero-Daley says these agencies that have traditionally been autonomous and working in silos are now able to better cooperate on a streamlined education plan for foster children in Santa Clara.

The collaborative model serves as an opportunity to promote dialogue among the different agencies.

“This is an opportunity through each child [for agencies] to talk to one another, to work together, and to work more efficiently. We’re all working toward the same goal … [a] much more effective way to educate our children,” Judge Guerrero-Daley said.

Program Structure

MSEC serves children who live in or near Santa Clara County3 and are receiving Family Reunification or Permanent Placement Services. Middle school-aged youth in the Dependency Court are referred to Judge Guerrero-Daley’s courtroom, where they receive a comprehensive educational needs evaluation and assessment. The evaluation and assessment, better known as the MSEC Report, is a compilation of the child’s academic history, current level of academic functioning, and the recommendations of an outside education consultant. It was developed to standardize the information provided to the court and to provide a high-level, comprehensive overview of how the youth is doing academically. 4 Every Wednesday of Judge Guerrero-Daley’s calendar is dedicated to MSEC.

In the mornings, a hearing is called where the judge, educational representatives and advocates, social workers, and the child’s lawyer meet to discuss how to implement the suggestions made on the MSEC Report. They take these recommendations and identify resources the child would need to meet these goals. Inter-agency collaboration becomes crucial at this point.

If the report suggests that the child receive more tutoring in math, for example, the Foster Youth Services agency steps in and finds a tutor, said Sonja House. Each child is also matched to a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) through the Child Advocates of Silicon Valley. These volunteer advocates have specialized training in education to provide additional academic support, advocacy, and oversight.

In the afternoons, the child is invited into Judge Guerrero-Daley’s chambers to ensure that he or she has a voice in the implementation of the education recommendations. What sets this court apart, notes Grove of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, is that MSEC devotes more pre-hearing time to understanding each child’s situation and provides time for each child to have more direct contact with the judge and the partners.

In addition, working with middle school-aged youth means that the “children are old enough to understand, to truly be a voice and partner in their education,” said Judge Guerrero-Daley.

Challenges for Foster Youth

Statistics consistently show foster children’s poor academic performance due to their particular challenges in attaining educational success. While the foster youth achievement gap is often overlooked, it affects hundreds of thousands of American students. Overall, their low academic attainment means that they often perform well below the standards for their age groups.5 Because of the effects of abuse, neglect, and frequent moves from one foster home to another, these children generally have lower scores on standardized tests, poorer school grades, and more behavior challenges and suspensions from school than comparison groups.6 Furthermore, a significant relationship exists between instances of maltreatment and a wide range of school outcomes, including poor grades, high rates of absenteeism, misbehavior, repeating grades, and involvement in special education programs.7 The consequences are very real. Foster youth who do graduate from high school take longer than other children to do so,8 and only 1.8 percent of foster children ever receive a college degree.9

Programs like MSEC seek to address the gaps in legislation and policy. While recent pieces of legislation like the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act10 and California’s Assembly Bill 490 11 have sought to stabilize youths’ educational experience, there are still challenges that continue to hinder foster youth.12 Specifically, foster youth are prone to prolonged absences, inappropriate school placements, missing records, lost credits, enrollment in inappropriate classes, and deficient special education services.13 Furthermore, the recent emphasis on charter schools, school choice, and vouchers as mechanisms for education reform disadvantage these children who are less likely to have a permanent adult advocate authorized to enroll them in these programs.14

The Crucial Years for Students

Santa Clara’s Middle School Education Court

A meeting of Santa Clara’s Middle School Education Court

While the ostensible goal of MSEC is to graduate more foster youth from high school, the team headed by Judge Guerrero-Daley knew that they had to start addressing these educational challenges much earlier. The middle school years are particularly formative ones for foster children, and the decision to work specifically with this age group was a conscious one. Bringing middle school-aged youth into an education-focused dependency court supports these students at a critical point in their schooling.

Success in middle school is one of the biggest indicators of educational success in high school, said Wendy Kinnear-Rasuch, Program Manager with Santa Clara County’s Department of Family and Children’s Services. Research has shown that middle school is one of the critical points for intervention, as the trajectory for academic success can be set in middle school and can determine educational outcomes in high school.15 Indeed, by the 7th grade, foster youth in out-of-home care are at least two grade levels behind their same-aged peers.16 If not addressed in middle school, this discrepancy becomes greatly exacerbated by the time these youth enter high school. While the county was charged with the task of increasing high school graduation rates, the agencies that came together to form MSEC knew that intervention had to happen at an earlier stage in these youths’ lives.

Success Stories

Even though MSEC is still in its infancy, its success is apparent. Three of the 24 children in MSEC have tested into their respective gifted and talented programs at school. Six have been identified for special education support they were not receiving before.

While MSEC has been able to get foster youth the educational resources they need, it also helps these children in subtler ways, too. The changes in attitude when children realize they have a network of adults with concrete plans to help them succeed have also been encouraging.

“It has been particularly moving to listen to Judge Guerrero-Daley converse with each child in her chambers and to see a child filled with pride,” said Vickie Grove of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley.

Moving Forward

The next step for MSEC as it prepares to move out of its pilot phase is to extend its reach within the Juvenile Dependency Court. The current standard practices employed in MSEC, such as creating an academic plan for each child and having social workers track academic progress, are practices MSEC hopes to standardize for each and every child in Santa Clara’s Juvenile Dependency Court, regardless of age.

Like many programs that run without additional staff and are reliant upon partners and the court volunteering extra time, funding continues to be one of the largest obstacles to expansion. While MSEC has received financial support from the Children’s Fund to create the MSEC Report for each child who enters MSEC, recent budget cuts and the loss of some other funding have slowed plans for further expansion.

People are still hopeful, though, about the impact MSEC will continue to have on foster youth. As the first of its kind in the nation, Santa Clara’s MSEC hopes that it can serve as a model other counties can emulate. By highlighting the work of this program, Sonja House says that MSEC will be “a catalyst to better serve [this population] of youth.”

MSEC was created under the leadership of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Court and in partnership and collaboration with the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE), Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, Legal Advocates for Children and Youth, Silicon Valley Children’s Fund and Dependency Advocacy Center.

Kristy Luk was a 2011 summer communications intern at NCYL. She is in her final year of undergraduate studies at Harvard University, where she is majoring in Social Studies.

  1. County of Santa Clara: Social Services Agency, Department of Family and Children’s Services, Middle School Education Report (2011).
  2. Id.
  3. Other counties include Alameda, San Mateo, San Benito, and Santa Cruz.
  4. Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara, Middle School Educational Court Policies and Procedures Manual (2011).
  5. Marni Finkelstein et al., Vera Institute of Justice, What Keeps Children in Foster Care From Succeeding in School? Views of Early Adolescents and the Adults in Their Lives, 2002, at 12.
  6. Peter Leone & Lois Weinberg, Center For Juvenile Justice Reform, Addressing the Unmet Educational Needs of Children and Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems, 2010, at 10.
  7. Id.
  8. National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, Educational Outcomes for Children and Youth in Foster and Out-of-Home Care, 2008, at 6.
  9. See Kathleen Kelly, The Education Crisis for Children in the California Juvenile Court System, 27 Hastings Const. L.Q. 757, 759 (2000).
  10. This act, passed in 1987, and reauthorized by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, is a federal law that addresses the issue of school stability for foster youth. School districts must, to the extent possible, keep these students in their schools of origin.
  11. AB 490 focuses on ensuring school stability, immediate enrollment and timely transfer of school records in cases where children must transfer schools, and the protection of grades and course credit for foster youth.
  12. Peter Leone & Lois Weinberg, Center For Juvenile Justice Reform, Addressing the Unmet Educational Needs of Children and Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems, 2010, at 23-28.
  13. Foster Youth Education Initiative, Advocacy Systems: A Study of How California Counties Ensure Foster Youth Receive the Educational Advocacy and Opportunities They Need, 2010, at 4-5.
  14. Ibid pp. 4-5.
  15. Telephone Interview with Wendy Kinnear-Rausen, Program Manager, Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children’s Services, (August 18, 2011).
  16. County of Santa Clara: Social Services Agency, Department of Family and Children’s Services, Middle School Education Report (2011).