Expired contracts leave education advocates for foster kids in limbo

Susan, a foster child with special education needs, wants to change high schools for a fourth time when school starts next month.

John, also a foster child, is struggling to get the special accommodations he needs in summer school.

Typically in these situations, an advocate called a surrogate parent” would step in to help such special-needs children overcome barriers and get the services they need.

But the state’s contracts with the 74 surrogates responsible for more than 1,000 foster and homeless children on any given day expired July 1 — which has left these advocates in limbo.

Judith Sommariva, a former special education teacher and surrogate for 26 children, said Monday one of her foster-care clients was arrested recently and is incarcerated in a juvenile pre-trial facility.

“I can’t work with him. I can’t see him. I don’t have the authority to do anything,” she said. “If I don’t have a contract, then how can I act on behalf of these kids.”

The expired contracts have led several surrogates to write state legislators and  officials at the State Department of Education to share their stories.

“This student’s [meeting] had been scheduled for today, yet we had no choice but to cancel it,” Deirdre Goldsmith, a surrogate, wrote the state’s education commissioner last week.

“While we await new contracts, there has been little direction from the [state] as to how to handle urgent placement decisions which arise during the summer,” Jacqueline Kelly, a surrogate parent for 38 kids and a former special education teacher, also wrote last week.

A state official was apologetic about the delay.

“Unfortunately, my hope of getting a contract out and how the wheels of bureaucracy move around here don’t jive as well as I thought. So things move a bit slower,” Isabelina Rodriguez, the bureau chief of the state’s special education office, said in an interview Monday.

Federal law requires children in foster care to be provided with a parent surrogate in an effort to improve educational outcomes for these students. In Connecticut, 51 percent of children in foster care are proficient in reading compared to 70 percent of other students in the same school districts, according to state data. One-quarter of Connecticut foster children miss more than 18 days of school each year.

“Our kids are failing,” said Martha Stone, the leader of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, an organization whose lawyers represent abused and neglected children. “This delay is hurting the most vulnerable kids over the summer. They need supports in place by the time school starts.”

Confusion among the surrogates was heightened when they inquired about whether they were allowed to continue advocating for their children in the absence of a contract.

“Please note that you shouldn’t engage in any surrogate parent activity without an executed contract,” Rodriguez wrote June 26. “However, if you have been informed that you will be receiving a contract, the contracts will have an effective date of July 1, 2015, and any activities that might occur between July 1, 2015 and the date your new contract is signed will be eligible as activities under the new contract.”

After it became clear that the email was confusing and that surrogate parents still had no idea what to do — and after an influx of stories about children’s needs going unmet — the education department followed up with an email Friday evening, 17 days after the contracts had expired.

“Even in the absence of the contract, you have the authority to attend [meetings involving your kids] and provide the necessary services for your assigned students. Please continue to provide all necessary services for your assigned students,” Rodriguez wrote.

This direction came after the assistant legal director for the Department of Children and Families’ weighed in, saying state law permits advocates to continue their work even in the absence of a contract, unless their appointment has been formally revoked.

“I would urge you to continue to represent and advocate for your kids,” Thomas De Matteo of DCF wrote a surrogate early last week.

Changes to the contract

The education department was unable to estimate when the language of the next contract would be provided to the surrogates, but Rodriguez said there is no intention to make wholesale changes in an attempt to cut costs.

“I don’t expect that we will be looking at any significant amount of savings,” she said.

But advocates point to four sentences in the Friday evening email about changes to expect in their contract.

Those changes include reducing the number of times each year a surrogate is required to meet with each child from three visits to two and caps the number of visits the state will pay for at four. Waivers will be provided to allow more visits, Rodriguez said, but no criteria have been determined yet for making those decisions.

“How can you build a relationship with your child if you only see them twice a year. You want a child to know you are there for them and that might take several visits,” Sommariva said during an interview. “I have had times where I have to meet seven times when they are going through a crisis. It’s what a normal parent would do for their child. I will do it whether I am compensated or not, but it’s just disheartening that they are putting numbers on it and quantifying what we do instead of qualifying what we do.”

“It’s about them trying to control costs, and it’s not fair to the children,” said Jacqueline Kelly, a surrogate responsible for 38 kids.

But Rodriguez said the intention is to help the department take an inventory of how many visits are necessary and to keep the agency more in the loop on high-need cases that warrant more visits. The state does not expect the cap on visits to impact the majority of surrogate parents.

Rodriguez points out that Connecticut is unique in paying advocates for their service.

“In many states, appointments are made, and they are not compensated. Connecticut just happens to compensate for this. The good majority of states do this without compensation,” she said.

Some states have created surrogate parent systems rather than rely on local school districts to assign surrogate parents.

A 2009 survey of 12 states — the most recent available — by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education shows that state spending on this program fluctuates greatly.

How much Connecticut spent in the last fiscal year on this program or how much it expects to spend this year were not immediately available. In fiscal 2009, the state spent $1.5 million.

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