Editor's note: This is the third story in a three-part series on foster care data sharing. May is National Foster Care Month, and an opportunity to reflect on how policymakers, researchers, and education and child welfare leaders are working together to help foster care students succeed academically. Part 1: Foster Care Student Data Emerges from the Shadows Part 2:  Washington Solves Data Sharing Puzzle to Help Foster Students

California is home to nearly 15 percent of the more than 427,000 children in foster care across the United States. Its sheer population size makes it a state to watch whenever major policy changes occur. That's the case with the Local Control Funding Formula reform. Introduced four years ago, the initiative called for schools to share education outcomes of students in foster care through the state's longitudinal data system, while county education offices had to make sure that data was accurate.

The state's 58 counties are responsible for the well-being and education of these children, and state government plays more of a supporting role. This local control means that some data-sharing bright spots exist in counties including Los Angeles, Fresno, San Diego and Sacramento, while some other counties' efforts have been disappointing, said Michelle Francois Traiman, senior director of the FosterEd initiative at the National Center for Youth Law.   

Across the country, some states do a good job sharing data at the state level, while others do a better job at the local or regional level. No state has it all together, Traiman said. "The biggest challenge most states have is doing population-level data exchanges that allow for the needs of foster youth to be flagged in real time."

As California acts on the policies that its legislators created, leaders at each level are working to overcome challenges and forge collaborative models and systems that will help students in foster care.

Old Systems, Privacy Issues Stymie Progress

While state legislation laid the groundwork for collaboration between social services and education departments, progress has been slow on the execution side.

"Implementation of some of that legislation has some barriers at times or has just taken a lot of time and effort to make sure that all of those things that are in statute are actually provided to the child," said Lori Fuller, bureau chief of the Permanency Policy Bureau at the California Department of Social Services.

Like Washington, California's two agencies were never designed to work together or to share data between their separate systems. The Child Welfare Services/Case Management System used at the Social Services Department is old and full of data quality issues because thousands of social workers input data from every county in different ways, said Paula Mishima, education administrator for the Educational Data Management Division at the California Department of Education.

That's a problem because it's the source of both state and local data sharing feeds. The Department of Social Services is currently redoing its Child Welfare Services/Case Management System so that education, social services, health and probation all have access to comprehensive data on the foster child they're working with, but that's a few years down the road.

In the meantime, department leaders are working on a second memorandum of understanding that would allow the Education Department to send some education data back to the Social Services Department for research purposes, though they're still working out the details. The revision would allow social workers to find out information on the programs their children are enrolled in, disciplinary actions taken and enrollment, which lets them assess large-scale needs and develop policies and programs to support those needs, Fuller said.

The departments' first memorandum has resulted in a weekly data sharing process that has a successful match rate of child welfare and education records of more than 90 percent. Now that they can see how foster children are doing in school, the state Education Department is posting the results online from the 2014-15 school year. While they're not pretty, these results give the state and counties an opportunity to figure out what's working to help these students succeed, and what needs to change.

Out of 4,943 foster youth in the cohort for that school year, just under half graduated, while nearly 30 percent dropped out. That's far worse than other subgroups of students including the state's 93,384 English learners and 56,045 special education students. About 70 percent of English learners graduated, while 65 percent of special education students did the same.

The results vary across the state, with Fresno and Orange counties seeing a nearly 60 percent cohort graduation rate, while Los Angeles and Sacramento counties experienced a nearly 45 percent graduation rate. San Diego fell even lower with about a 40 percent graduation rate.

At the local level, privacy issues have come up frequently as counties consider how much information to share and who to share it with as they try to help improve education outcomes for these students. That's why the California Attorney General's Office, the Education Department and the Social Services Department issued joint legal guidance last year to help them understand what they can share so they can establish more regional data sharing agreements.  

"Up until this point, there's still been a lot of reluctance with data sharing just because there's concern about the privacy issues," Mishima said.

Using the Data Correctly 

Sacramento County has addressed privacy issues by building role-based access and permissions into its Foster Focus system, which pulls in data feeds from the Child Welfare Services/Case Management System for each of the 36 counties that subscribe to the system's services. It also pulls in data from the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) and school district student information systems. 

Child welfare and probation workers in the county can see data for kids in their jurisdiction, and each county decides which groups and people will have access to the system, then which of those people can see specific parts of the system, said Bridget Stumpf, primary administrator for Foster Focus. The system started in 2000 through a collaborative effort between each of these agencies. Around the same time, other model counties including Fresno, Orange and San Diego started similar systems.

When it first started, county officials entered data manually into Foster Focus so they could have records in one location from each agency on every child in foster care, giving them a more complete picture of what's going on with that student, Stumpf said. Now much of the system's data is automated.

The data match reveals big picture trends over time in aggregate for the state and brings smaller counties up to the same level of data access as the model counties that have a direct data link with school districts. 

But just getting the data records doesn't ultimately make a difference for foster students. It's how people use it that counts.  

"Data is a tool for collaboration. It's a way to start a conversation with multiple agencies that are often responsible for serving a child, but that's all it is," said Stumpf, who was a case manager for 10 years before transitioning to work that lets her help people who are working with kids in 36 counties. "It's a tool. It still takes the relationship and the collaboration to really do the best we can for kids. We have to do something with that data."  

Child Protective Services in Sacramento County works closely with the county education office to make sure they have accurate data and are using it to inform their decisions. In each of the three Child Protective Services offices, a Sacramento County Office of Education instructional case manager is embedded there to enter data into the statewide child welfare database and Foster Focus and help facilitate the fast transfer of enrollment records.

These managers also work with social workers and case workers to prepare a letter that requests an individual education plan for a particular student and follow up to make sure it's completed. They help children make graduation plans as well when they're about to age out of the system.   

This collaboration helps ensure that foster youth are placed in appropriate courses and programs that meet their needs, receive credit when they change placements or schools and keep on track in school with the help of outside resources. Social workers also get more accurate information faster that they can provide to a school when students transfer, said Cynthia Vanzant, program planner for Child Protective Services in the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services. And by using the School Connect database that the county education office also created, social workers can use ZIP codes to place children in homes closer to their school that meet the children's needs.

States including California have made quite a bit of progress over the last few years to share data, make sure it's accurate and act on it. But they still have more work to do, said Traiman, of the FosterEd initiative. Regional pockets of excellence exist where agencies are identifying students' needs with the help of data sharing. That said, they're not prolific enough. This work is hard, expensive, and takes persistence and strong leaders at each level.   

"We're another decade out really from seeing the kind of use of data that truly makes it down to every single use," Traiman said. "Implementation doesn't work unless every young person experiences the benefit of the intended policy or the intended vision of the state partners."