What is an advocate?
An advocate is someone who stands up for the interests of another person. No special training or formal status is required (although foster parents are urged to seek as much training and assistance as possible - see section on Resources for more information). There is no single way to be a good advocate, but for an education advocate, the following are keys to helping a student succeed.
Who are my child's advocates in San Mateo County?
- Foster Parent, Guardian or Caregiver: An effective caregiver understands what is going on with the child emotionally, physically and educationally. Living with a child gives an opportunity to really connect with a child and to advocate on their behalf for their best interest. This doesn't always mean giving a child what they want, but standing up for what the child needs is vital.
- Social worker: Every dependent child is assigned a social worker, who, among many other responsibilities, must help ensure that the child's educational needs are being met by attending meetings, offering a critical understanding of needs, providing assistance via transportation, and requesting needed resources within the community.
- Educational Liaisons, Foster Youth Services: Our county liaisons provide collaborative services to support all foster youth in the county, working as a liaison between schools, social workers, CASAs, mental health, probation and other agencies. They can request school records; attend meetings when extra assistance is needed including IEP, SST, discipline and other educational meetings; provide information and resources; and make referrals to other agencies.
- Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs): CASAs are volunteers appointed by the Juvenile Court Judge to spend time with and advocate for a dependent child. CASAs are trained in many areas, but supporting their child's educational success is one of their primary roles. If your foster child does not have a CASA, either call the CASA Program or ask your child's social worker about it.
- Family and Friends: Sometimes relatives and family friends may provide essential support, information, and history to our foster youth. Please consult with a social worker to recommend anyone that may be appropriate in this role.
While those outside supports can play a big role, the support that the caregiver provides in the home setting can be crucial to a child's success. This support begins with your relationship with the child.
What do Advocates do?
- Create relationships with school staff and others who can help: In an ideal world, schools, families and communities are working together to provide the best for each student. This is not always the reality, however, and relationships can go sour when difficult issues arise. Try to maintain a positive, helpful approach in dealing with all school staff, from teachers and aides to supervisors and managers, including principals and superintendents. It is important to attend parent-teacher conferences and other meetings regarding the child, as well as school events. Check in with teachers regularly, not just when there's a problem. When problems arise, follow up, and respond to all school communications promptly. Ask the child or young person how things are going, and suggest ways to help the child to communicate effectively with teachers and staff. When problems do arise, always ask for and listen carefully to the school's side of the issue.
- Be persistent, yet flexible: An advocate should rarely accept "no" for an answer. Moreover, the educational advocacy role should continue as long as the child remains in your home. Yet the advocate must also recognize that in some circumstances a change in the goal for a child may be necessary. Knowing when to compromise, and when to shift goals for a child is a challenging task. Finding other foster parents or others with advocacy experience to provide advice and counsel can be very helpful in making these decisions.
- Be prepared - The parent or educational surrogate has the right to inspect and review a complete copy of the educational records of a child. It is important to review the entire record carefully. If there are parts of the records that are unclear, ask school staff for an explanation. For many children or youth in care, the school records may be incomplete or inaccurate, because the child has moved several times. The school should make an effort to locate records and have them transferred from other schools, ensuring that all proper credit is documented. Educational liaisons and social workers can assist.
- Keeping records and making a record: Don't throw away anything, and that includes the child's school work. Keep homework, tests, and other school work that a child brings home. Organize everything into files or even a three ring binder, with material under each topic in chronological order. It is also very useful to keep an ongoing log of all contacts with school staff, reports received for a child, and other developments concerning a child's educational experience. Put all requests in writing, and confirm telephone requests or oral requests made at meetings with a letter. Always keep a copy of letters you send to the school. One useful strategy is to hand deliver a letter to the school, and ask school personnel to sign and date your copy, acknowledging receipt.
- Keep looking for allies: Some of the best allies can be sympathetic school staff, whether a teacher or administrator. Other important allies can be foster parents who have gone through a similar experience, who may offer practical advice and moral support. Other allies may be found in the child welfare community. The child welfare agency that placed the child in your home may offer specialized technical help in dealing with educational agencies. The child should have a guardian-ad-litem, or attorney appointed for juvenile or family court matters who may also become a resource on educational issues, even if informally. Disability organizations offer a wealth of technical information; the national groups listed in the resource section have websites with links to state and local affiliates. In addition, there are several advocacy and training organizations, including parent training and information centers, protection and advocacy centers, and legal services programs that may offer additional assistance.