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In the face of the pandemic, Reliant Foundation steps in to help

Generous grant supports services for children in foster care and their families

Date Posted: miércoles, abril 28, 2021

FaCES - Reliant Foundation.jpg

In Massachusetts, about 6,000 school-age children—roughly the size of the Shrewsbury school district—are in foster care, and their educational needs are both numerous and complex. Because their home situations and behavioral health needs impact their schooling, these children face increased odds of having low scores in math and reading, and of repeating a grade, as well as experiencing low high school graduation rates and higher unemployment rates than their peers.

Overcoming these odds in normal times is a challenge, and it’s why the Foster Child Evaluation Services (FaCES) program at UMass Chan Medical School is so vital: it helps provide accessible and comprehensive support services that are child-centered and account for the trauma children in foster placement often experience. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdowns added a host of new hurdles—particularly regarding education—FaCES was needed even more. Thankfully, the Reliant Foundation was there to help.

“Education has been impacted for all kids, and remote learning is very difficult for kids in foster care,” said Heather Forkey, MD, professor of pediatrics at UMass Chan Medical School, director of FaCES, and chief of the Division of Child Protection for the UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center. “How do you find them to get them a Chromebook? Do they have internet access? What if they’re in a residential setting with no opportunity to do individualized learning? These are surmountable obstacles, but for a kid in foster care who may already be behind, it can be too much.”

Heather Forkey, MD

Before the pandemic, a member of the FaCES team took on additional responsibilities as a part-time education navigator to help foster families overcome the obstacles to education they often face, such as obtaining school placements, advocating for academic supports, collecting and sharing information, and more.

“An education navigator is someone who has a good working knowledge of what the rules are and how to make it work,” Dr. Forkey said. “When things are really challenging, at a practical level, foster kids and families have someone who can troubleshoot with them, guide them, and coach them.”

The rapid switch to an online world in 2020 took these needs to the next level and revealed the importance of having someone on board who is focused specifically on the educational needs of these children. Enter the Reliant Foundation, an organization that aims to improve the health and well-being of individuals of all ages in Central and MetroWest Massachusetts.

Through a generous grant made in the early days of the pandemic, Reliant helped FaCES establish a new, dedicated education navigator position. The impact will be substantial, as the person in this role will be able to help about 100 children a year by restoring connections between students and schools and supporting the mental health of these most traumatized children, along with their foster parents.

“Children being placed in foster care need access to appropriate, trauma-informed care and extra educational supports,” said Reliant Foundation President Kelsa Zereski. “Often, these children are moved around in the foster care system, changing home addresses, schools and teachers, needing new care providers, and needing continuation of Individualized Educational Plans. Without the help of a navigator, it would be extremely difficult for caregivers or school systems to keep track of the supports these children need in order to succeed.”

"This grant says a lot to our kids and families. It tells them that they matter, and that their issues matter."

In this dedicated position, the education navigator can also continue working with community partners to advocate for policy changes—including speedy school reenrollment after a foster placement and streamlined communications between mental health providers and educators—that provide more accountability for the educational needs of children in foster care. In addition, the navigator organized a group of UMMS School of Medicine students to provide one-on-one support with children in the foster care system. Called FaCES Friends, these 12 volunteers earn academic credit for participating in the program all year.

“They became part tutor, part buddy to these kids. They were helping with remote education, but they were also answering questions for these kids about being a doctor,” said Dr. Forkey. “Our students’ worlds have been changed too. They’re asking me how to do this for a career and they’re asking about foster care medicine. Think about how that echoes.”

As Dr. Forkey puts it, it’s a true team effort to make sure each child in foster care gets what he or she needs when it comes to education. The support from the Reliant Foundation has grown that team during a critical time.

“This grant says a lot to our kids and families. It tells them that they matter, and that their issues matter,” Dr. Forkey said. “Imagine how it feels when you are the only child who doesn’t get a Chromebook, or, as a foster parent you’ve gone the extra mile to take a kid in during the pandemic, and yet no one will help you meet their needs. When Reliant says that this matters, it elevates the issue. That is huge, and we’re extremely grateful for the wonderful support for these children.”

Learn more about the FaCES program: www.umassmed.edu/faces