BOSTON (SHNS) – The educational records of children in foster care would travel with them in a new electronic system under a bill that supporters say would ease one of the challenges facing a population of youth with higher school transfer and drop-out rates.
“We can’t use technology to undo much of the damage that has been done to our children in foster care, to eliminate the trauma, to cure the pain — physical and emotional — that our children in foster care often suffer,” Auditor Suzanne Bump told the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities at a Monday hearing. “We can’t use technology to repair unstable families or even to find a new forever home for children in foster care, but we can use technology to provide better educational continuity for our children in foster care.”
A bill, filed by committee co-chair Rep. Kay Khan, would task the Department of Children and Families with developing an “electronic backpack” for every child in foster care, containing the child’s educational records, including grade-level performance. The information would be made available to anyone authorized to make educational decisions for the child and anyone authorized to consent to medical care.
“It’s hard enough for children to move from school to school to school, and if they can be made to feel more comfortable and if the school teachers understand better about where they’re coming from and what their needs are educationally, I think that will be somewhat of a help. So I really do hope we can work to put this through this session if possible,” Khan said.
A similar “electronic backpack” bill filed by Sen. Ryan Fattman (S 46) has already received the committee’s endorsement and was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee last month.
Bump said the current system for transferring educational records is inefficient, and foster kids who arrive at a new school can be placed in academic settings that don’t properly meet their needs. She said 45 percent of students in foster care require individualized education plans, and that students in foster care have higher school transfer and drop-out rates than the general student population.
Jean Willoughby of the Federation of Children with Special Needs, an organization that recruits volunteers to attend IEP meetings and serve as special education decision-makers for kids in DCF custody, called the bill “just essential.”
“They have a hard enough time as it is getting situated, and then to not have any resources of their own history,” she said. “We have supported this bill for a long time.”
Electronic backpack bills have been filed since at least 2015 and have earned favorable reports from the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities in each of the last two sessions, though they have not come to the floor in either branch for a vote.
The latest push for the bill comes amid a House initiative to identify needs and challenges at DCF. Rep. Denise Garlick, the vice chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, began exploring the topic in September.
Khan, a Newton Democrat, noted during Monday’s hearing that lawmakers are “doing a lot of extra work around DCF right now.”
On Friday evening, House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a statement saying he’d met with Garlick to discuss the case of Lyric Farrell, a Whitman 2-year-old whose late December death has been under investigation by state and local police.
The girl’s mother, Shaniqua Leonard, pleaded not guilty to a charge of reckless endangerment of a child and was due back in court Monday for a dangerousness hearing, according to Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz’s office.
“While it remains unclear as to what, if any, involvement the Department of Children and Families may have had with this family prior to Lyric’s death, in the wake of yesterday’s developments, I met today with Representative Denise Garlick, who is point person on the House’s effort examining the foster care system and DCF, to discuss this tragic incident,” DeLeo said in the statement. “There is no higher priority for the House than to ensure that the Commonwealth satisfies its moral obligation to protect our most vulnerable citizens. While there are many questions still to be answered, we must take every step possible to fulfill our duty to the Commonwealth’s children.”