My book, Succeeding Together: Schools, Child Welfare and Uncertain Public Responsibility for Abused or Neglected Children, really comes out of my work, many years ago, in a legal aid clinic for domestic violence survivors in Brooklyn, New York. I was completely impressed by the impact of a program I observed, which provided representation to children in the child welfare system on their education issues — school discipline, special education, etc. Those advocates were making a big difference for a super-vulnerable group of children who had really fallen between the cracks of different systems that are supposed to serve children. I went on to do other things (starting and running a law school in Nunavut), but I never forgot those advocates and the children they helped.
When I started my PhD in education, I thought I would do my dissertation around how schools support kids in the child welfare system. In the course of the research, I hit on something I found very surprising – 85% of children in the child welfare system don’t go into foster care; they stay with their parents. The government acknowledges that they may not be facing an immediate crisis but that they are often equally vulnerable. The much larger group of children, who have been declared by a children’s aid society to be at risk, are “not on the radar” of most of the policy work going on around education for kids in care. In fact, schools often don’t even know that children are in the child welfare system.
My research was a qualitative study of mothers, teachers and social workers about how they saw their own and each others’ responsibility for these children’s educational success. Both education and child welfare have a legislative mandate to work for children’s well-being but in practice, there are major gaps. Teachers often don’t report suspected abuse and neglect; family service workers don’t seek consent to contact schools because they are often concerned schools will stigmatize kids in care.
Child welfare holds mothers accountable for living up to child welfare standards — but especially in low-conflict cases in the community, there are no standards or expectations about what child welfare should be doing to support these children. Everyone acknowledges that teachers can make a difference for abused and neglected children but it is a lottery as to whether kids will be matched with helpful educators. Furthermore, teachers are expected to help out of the goodness of their hearts, as good people — rather than as employees who can expect support in this difficult part of their job.
This book is part of my larger research agenda, looking at educational inequalities and the legal and policy frameworks to address it. My research in this field reflects my deep belief that we need to better use our large public institutions to help overcome disadvantage and that we need to understand the perspectives of those on the frontlines and the borderlands between private and public to develop policy that will meet those needs.
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