On school mornings, 19 kids who live in Mesa County foster homes are driven across the valley — to Fruita or Grand Junction or Palisade or beyond — so they can attend school with the same teachers and friends they had before they switched homes.
They catch a ride on new school bus routes, with their foster parents, and sometimes, with hired drivers from local companies similar to a taxi or ride-share service.
Federal law requires that foster kids get to stay in their “school of origin” when it’s best for them. And last year, Colorado pulled off something few states did — the legislature set aside $2.75 million to pay for what had been an unfunded mandate.
Yet since that Colorado law passed in 2018, county child welfare departments have billed the state for only 2 percent of the funds, according to state records reviewed by The Colorado Sun. It’s a disappointing start for a policy change that was touted across the country, and one that has once again fired up discord between the state child welfare department and the county departments it oversees.
Just eight counties out of 64 have notified the state they spent some of the transportation dollars, and only two counties — Mesa and Arapahoe — have submitted reimbursements substantial enough to show they have put the new law into practice. What that means, state officials say, is that too many foster kids still are having to transfer from school to school, disrupting their academic progress as well as their emotional stability.
“It tells me that students are still changing schools and that shouldn’t be happening,” said Kristin Melton, youth services manager for the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees child welfare. Spending is “so low across the board that we know not enough is happening.”
Foster children in Colorado have a four-year graduation rate, at 23 percent, lower even than students who are homeless. On average, a foster youth in Colorado changes high schools three and a half times in four years, according to research from the University of Northern Colorado.
Underwhelming results in law’s first year
Mesa and Arapahoe counties each have asked for about 11 percent of their total allotment for the fiscal year, which is more than half over. Some counties, including Denver, have spent money reimbursing foster parents for their mileage or paying a ride service but have not yet turned their expenses into the state. A majority of counties have not asked for a penny.
Before requesting $2.75 million from the legislature, state child welfare officials analyzed the number of foster children in each county and estimated how many were attending or should go to their school of origin. The state law, with bipartisan support, required each county child welfare department to develop cost-sharing agreements with their local school districts, and required the counties to submit for reimbursement from the state.
Just one-third of counties have the agreements with school districts in place, even though the state-imposed deadline was Oct. 15.
When children are taken from their parents and placed in foster care, or when they change foster homes, caseworkers are required to convene a “best-interest determination” to decide whether the child should switch schools or stay put. The meeting includes teachers and school staff, parents, and in some cases, the child.
According to a state data sample of children who changed schools, that meeting happened before the school switch just 11 percent of the time in Colorado last year. More often than not, the meeting happened after the student had already transferred or didn’t happen at all.
The lack of engagement in the new law is disappointing, said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families. “We are not seeing the outcomes we had hoped for,” she said.
Law created tension between state, counties
But even in Arapahoe County, which has spent about $45,000 of its allotted $211,000, child welfare officials say the new law is difficult to put into practice. It puts too big a burden on counties, once again, said Angela Lytle, deputy director of Arapahoe County Human Services.
For starters, each county has to create an agreement with all the school districts in the area. For Arapahoe, that’s nine school districts, from Cherry Creek and Aurora to Littleton and Sheridan. The county is supposed to seek 10 percent of the transportation costs from the school district, cover 10 percent from its own budget, and bill the state for the remaining 80 percent.
The state Department of Human Services could have worked out an agreement with the Colorado Department of Education, then reimbursed the counties instead of requiring them to seek funds from the state and every school district, she said.
“It’s really complicated how it was set up,” she said. “It could be more simplified. The full burden fell on counties to make it all work.”
Still, she said, the work is important and “aligns with our values in keeping kids connected to their communities.
“When kids have to be removed from their homes and placed elsewhere, it’s really disruptive,” she said. “When they have to change schools on top of that, they are losing friends and losing teachers. If we can try to do what we can to keep that in place, it helps minimize the emotional impact.”
In Arapahoe County, which has about 600 children in out-of-home placements, anywhere from 15 to 25 kids on any given day are picked up by HopSkipDrive, a company that specializes in driving children and hires drivers with experience in caregiving for vulnerable populations. About 60 Arapahoe County foster kids have used the transportation service since July, Lytle said.
The company also has a contract with Denver County Human Services set to begin in 2019. Denver County has spent about $22,000 of its $465,000 allotment, but has not yet sent the state a bill, spokeswoman Julie Smith said.
“These are their people”
Jefferson County is among the counties that have not asked the state for funds. The county recently settled on a cost-sharing agreement with the school district, but the document has not been turned into the state, said Barb Weinstein, director of Children, Youth, Families and Adult Protection.
But that doesn’t mean kids aren’t getting rides, she said. The school district has rerouted yellow buses to take foster kids to their school of origin and the county has used the HopSkipDrive service one time.
The county worked with just five or six foster kids at the start of school last fall who needed transportation to their school of origin, she said. But that number is not nearly as high as what state officials predicted for Jefferson County.
“I definitely think it will ramp up,” Weinstein said. But “I don’t think it’s going to be some big windfall of cost.”
Mesa County is a frontrunner in part because officials there changed their policy before the state legislation passed, based on the federal requirement.
The county, which has 270 kids in its foster system, also has increased efforts to make sure students get a best-interest determination before they are transferred to a new school. Mesa is getting it right a majority of the time, but the process doesn’t work well in “crisis situations” and in particular when a child is moved to a residential treatment center, child welfare manager Hannah Webster said.
“We all believe in the cause,” she said. “We are really making a stand that this is what is right for kids. These are their home schools. These are their communities. These are their teachers. These are their people. It could be the only thing that is reliable in their entire lives.”
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