Finding Educational Anchors Amidst Housing Instability

By Amber Alvarez, Educational Advocate Lead at Treehouse

Recently, I was in a meeting with a student and his current school district to discuss his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a plan that lays out a student’s special education accommodations so they can make progress in school and help them thrive. We were reviewing his progress and plan moving forward. At the end of the meeting, he was asked, “Do you have any questions about your IEP, or what that will look like?” The student said no and then asked where he would be staying that night. The social worker replied, “Bud, that’s a conversation for outside of school. We’ll talk about that after this meeting.”

Although his IEP was important, it clearly wasn’t on his mind. And I can’t blame him — not having a stable place to go to every night makes it nearly impossible to focus on your education.

For many students like him who are in what is considered a “night-to-night” placement, they don’t get to go home after school. They hang out in offices of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) either with or awaiting their social worker. Occasionally, students will spend time with after-hour staff until a placement is located but after-hour staffing changes frequently, so there isn’t a whole lot of consistency there. Around 10pm, the student is dropped off at their emergency placement for the night and picked up around 6:30am the next morning for school. They are in a different place every night. This operates as a makeshift hotel of sorts and doesn’t provide the youth with the stability and security they need to feel safe.

Between September 1, 2021 and August 30, 2022, 281 Washington state youth spent 4,692 nights in hotels, DCYF offices, night-to-night or other emergency placements. 21% of those youth spent 20 or more consecutive nights without a consistent home to go to.

The reasons youth end up in an “exceptional placement” — as the DCYF categorizes it — varies. It could be attributed to a shortage of licensed foster homes in a specific region. Depending on the needs of a youth, it could also be due to a lack of placements qualified to work with youth experiencing high behavioral or mental health needs. What we often find is that youth with high behaviors are the ones with high trauma. The trauma of being removed from your home leads to a reaction to the trauma from a dysregulated youth who’s not doing well. That behavior and dysregulation leads to more trauma, and it becomes a cycle that has no end. Every time they move, it gets worse and worse. With a shortage of suitable placement options, these youth move frequently, experiencing high mobility.

As an Educational Advocate at Treehouse, I have seen firsthand how unpredictability impacts the education of our youth, not to mention their sense of security, mental health and well-being. I have an elementary student who has been so affected by the worry of losing his placement and moving again that he would get in trouble at school because he knew that if he got in trouble, he’d be sent home early. What he couldn’t comprehend was this behavior was putting an extra layer of struggle of challenges on the caregiver, and unfortunately, what ended up happening is he had to move. His worst fear came true because of what he was trying to prevent. It’s really unfortunate because it really impacts the mental health of our students.

A goal of our Educational Advocacy program is to help the support system in a youth’s life — social workers, caregivers, district personnel, teachers and others — navigate all the red tape and barriers to their education and create stability based on their particular needs and situation. Although we aren’t able to keep a youth from moving to a different placement, we can prevent unnecessary school changes by making sure that steps such as Best Interest Determination meetings happen, which ensure that youth in foster care change schools only when necessary; or that their IEP or special education accommodations move with them if they do change schools, giving them a better experience. While most of our cases in the program are short term (1-6 months), it has been taking longer to find some stability for our highly mobile youth.

Thanks to one-time COVID funding, our Educational Advocacy program has been able to have two positions dedicated to supporting highly mobile youth over the past year.

Before these positions, cases for our highly mobile youth were spread amongst the Educational Advocates. Our Educational Advocates often had to drop everything given the urgent nature of their situations and chase down what was needed for them. The result of this emergency shift of focus is that youth who were not highly mobile did not get the timely attention they needed. With the two positions we have now serving the highly mobile population, our other Educational Advocates have been able to focus on their caseloads across the program. The result is eliminating long waitlists and more equitable support across the state for the young people referred for our services.

But the funding for these two critical positions dedicated to supporting highly mobile youth is about to run out. Your support is needed to make sure we get the funding needed to keep these positions! Sign up for our Advocacy Action Center to contact your legislators and advocate with us.

Pamela Holmes-Whyte contributed to this blog post.

To read more about our legislative agenda, including our ask to permanently fund these Educational Advocacy positions, read this blog post.

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About the Author

Amber has been at Treehouse for over three years and is deeply committed to Treehouse’s mission. She has a Bachelor of Arts from University of Washington-Bothell where she double majored in Law, Economics & Public Policy, and Society, Ethics, & Human Behavior with a minor in Human Rights. She has been working closely with students and young adults for over six years, to support their employment and educational needs. She enjoys relationship building within the communities she serves, especially as a means to best support youth in care.

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