Cutting the Red Tape for Foster Youth Success

Categories:
Education, Foster care, Youth

U.S. Representative Karen Bass and Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon sit across each other and participate in a press caAround 400,000 children in the United States are without permanent families and live in foster care. At the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the Children’s Bureau works hard with state partners to provide the best possible environment for foster youth.

While every attempt is made to provide an easy transition between foster families while a child awaits adoption or reunification, foster youth often experience systematic breakdowns when enrolling in new schools.

Bureaucratic hold-ups often delay the transfer of school records which results in foster youth:

  • Taking course work multiple times
  • Graduating from high school late
  • Dropping out of high school

On Jan. 14, this red tape was finally cut when President Barack Obama signed into law bipartisan legislation called the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which adds child welfare professionals to the list of approved people who can access a foster youth’s education records and help transfer their credits to new schools.

“It’s one of the single most important things we can do to improve the lives of children in foster care,” said ACF Acting Assistant Secretary George H. Sheldon (pictured on the top right with House Bill Sponsor, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California, during a press call regarding Uninterrupted Scholars Act). “Too many children are aging out (of foster care programs) without a high school diploma.”

Prior to the law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) unintentionally hindered child welfare agencies by barring access to records due to privacy concerns. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act now remedies the situation while still protecting and preserving the educational privacy rights of students and parents.

One of the most remarkable things about this common sense legislation is that it took less than a year to pass and sign into law. Bipartisan support for this important initiative began with the help of an individual coming to Washington, D.C., to make a difference — a former foster youth. 

Photo of former foster youth R.J. SlokeCongressional staff member R.J. Sloke (pictured on the left) had a hard time earning his high school diploma. Sloke spent six years in foster care, being placed in 30 group homes, institutions and foster families. During his teens, he attended up to 12 high schools before graduating. Sloke had to retake his freshmen year three times because of missing school records as a result of school systems not syncing with each other.

Sloke galvanized Congress members when he shared his story during his tenure as an intern sponsored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. In 2012, he worked in the offices of Republican Congress members from Missouri, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who took up his cause. And when Sloke was hired to work as a staff assistant for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, he found an advocate in the Democratic senator who is also an adoptive mother of two.

Landrieu, who introduced the legislation, said that this new law will be a quick fix that costs nothing and can make huge improvements in the lives of many children.

“The Uninterrupted Scholars Act will benefit youth by making it easier for them to graduate high school,” said Sloke, who is now 22 and living in Virginia. “Also, with each new school transition, they can be registered for the right classes in a timely manner. Furthermore, this should increase the number of former foster youth graduating with a four-year degree.”

Sloke is still amazed that he was able to help change laws to improve the lives of foster youth.

“This whole experience doesn’t feel real. I would have never imagined, coming from my background, that I would be capable of influencing such change,” said Sloke, currently an undergraduate at George Mason University, majoring in government and international politics with a minor in legal studies. “Now I have the confidence and momentum needed to make more potential changes.”

Like many foster youth, Sloke grew up to be a great individual who contributes to society. Not only does he work as a public servant in the nation’s capital, but he also protects this country as a corporal in the U.S. Army Reserve. Sloke hopes to inspire other foster youth to aim high.

“I would like to complete law school, do some lobbying and practice law, open up my own motivational speaking business,” he said. “My main vision is to run for U.S. Congress one day.”

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