Catalyst overstates concentration of foster children in Chicago schools

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Contrary to claims published by Catalyst in the November article “Child Welfare Rx Has Side Effects for School,” abused and neglected children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) are neither clustered in a small number of Chicago public schools, nor present in sufficient numbers to impact school performance.

Prior to publication, independent researchers refuted the data used to assert these claims. In addition, Catalyst completely ignored data showing improved academic performance after DCFS involvement.

FY 2002 CPS data shows DCFS wards enrolled in 458 elementary and 92 high schools, less than 1 percent of elementary and 0.26 percent of high school students. While 20 percent of these students were enrolled in 32 schools, they comprised only 2.97 percent of the school enrollment. The greatest number of students in a school was 66 (not 200), or 3.97 percent of the 1,740 students. Only three schools (not 42) had an enrollment of 10 percent or more, and these were specialized schools with a total of 24 DCFS wards.

Unfortunately, the Catalyst article appeared to be blaming abused and neglected children for a school’s low academic performance. When the safety and well being of a child warrants intervention from the child welfare system, more often than not the child is already behind developmentally and academically as a result of maltreatment. It should come as no surprise then that children who have been the victims of maltreatment progress at a significantly slower rate than children who have been spared the trauma of abuse and neglect. Overlooked in the analysis completed by Catalyst is what happens next, when CPS and DCFS work jointly to serve this vulnerable population. Test scores improve at a rate comparable to other CPS students (Children and Family Research Center, University of Illinois).

Placing children in foster care actually mitigates the very factors contributing to weak academic performance rather than allowing children to fall behind (Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago).

The progress has not been without effort. For more than five years, both DCFS and CPS have developed and maintained an unprecedented collaborative relationship not seen anywhere else in the nation.

Together, we have helped thousands of foster children, their families and teachers overcome educational obstacles. Along with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), we have secured legislation improving policy and increasing education funding to children in DCFS care. Finally, ISBE, DCFS and CPS representatives participate on the advisory board of the Center for Child Welfare and Education at Northern Illinois University in order to better bridge the gaps between the bureaucracies for public education and child welfare.

In closing, we want to commend the hard work of professionals in both the public education system and the child welfare system who clearly make a difference in the lives of these vulnerable children. We also commend the devotion of foster families and relative caregivers committed to ensuring better futures for these children. While hard work remains, their efforts continue to show results.

Jess McDonald


Illinois Department of Children and Family Services

Arne Duncan


Chicago Public Schools

Editor’s note: Mr. McDonald and Mr. Duncan have misrepresented what Catalyst and The Chicago Reporter wrote. Our joint report points out that over the last 10 years more foster children have been funneled into schools that are struggling academically. Our report neither says nor implies that foster children are to blame for those schools’ academic failures.

Our story notes that the figures cited include some children who have been, but no longer are, wards of the state, which one CPS official agreed was a sufficient measure of the number of public school children who had ever been in the state’s child welfare system. Catalyst and The Reporter examined the number and distribution of foster children in Chicago public schools over time. And while CPS did provide current year data, neither it nor DCFS was able to produce similar information for prior years. The Consortium of Chicago School Research, however, did have historical data on foster children in public schools. Our report used the Consortium’s statistics.

In recent years, DCFS has succeeded in moving more and more children out of the foster care system and into permanent homes. Even so, those children are more likely to need additional supports to do well in school, and schools that are struggling already don’t have the resources to provide foster children or ex-foster children with the extra help they may need.