The NIU Center for Child Welfare and Education (CCWE) was established in 2000. The NIU Board of Trustees and Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the Center after five years of partnership with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to secure educational wellbeing for youth in foster care.
In 1994 Jess McDonald (DCFS director at that time) recruited Sharon Freagon (NIU professor) to chair the B.H. vs. McDonald DCFS Education TASK FORCE. Angela Baron-Jeffrey joined the effort that same year. Their research on the education of youth in care and Freagon’s coordination of the TASKFORCE culminated in a recommendations report 1 that became part BH Decree implementation and a template for securing educational well-being for youth in care. Freagon and Baron-Jeffrey began implementing the report requirements in 1996. The Educational Access Project for DCFS emerged from these efforts.
The Center continues to collaborate with DCFS to clear the way for better outcomes for children and families involved with foster care. CCWE provides resolution to educational issues youth encounter, advances the body of knowledge, offers professional development, reviews/writes policy, as well as helps DCFS address permanency issues and racial/ethnic disparities.
In 1995, NIU conducted focus groups and literature reviews to examine the educational status of youth in foster and related policy and practices, the inaugural research of the Center.
CCWE initiated subsequent research to expand the then limited body of knowledge on this population. As part of the Illinois Child Well Being Studies from 2001 to 2009, CCWE conducted extensive reviews of individual student school records of children and youth in DCFS’ care and custody. The first two rounds examined stratified samples (2001 – 2004) of youth in foster care followed by three rounds of a longitudinal study with simple random samples (2007, 2008, and 2009). The data gathered on over 1800 students illustrated how youth fared in educational wellbeing areas such as attendance, academic performance, school mobility, school discipline, special education eligibility, and age-appropriate grade. These studies led to a greater understanding of the educational status of youth in foster care in Illinois, their performance and some of the barriers they face.
Furthermore, information from the studies' findings led to policy and practice changes that benefit youth in care. For example, DCFS modified case assignment practices in 2006 to help reduce school mobility because of the wellbeing study findings regarding the high non-promotional school mobility of youth in foster care.
CCWE also facilitates research and data sharing for DCFS, and in conjunction with Illinois State University (ISU), Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville (SIU-E) and the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), have investigated foster care permanency challenges and racial disarity.
CCWE educates professionals to enhance their competency to serve youth and families in vulnerable populations. CCWE designed developed and implemented training programs for child welfare professionals, foster and adoptive parents, school personnel and district administrators, court personnel and other stakeholders who influence the education of youth in care. CCWE also developed the training program for Illinois teachers on the influence of trauma on education, and for Illinois State Board of Education surrogate parents who represent the educational rights of youth in foster care under IDEA.
Moreover, CCWE has provided learning opportunities for stakeholders in local communities to identify and address problems that affect life and family preservation, socio-economic development, diversity, and quality of life.
CCWE’s work influences policy and practice changes that shift the educational paradigm leading to greater potential for education parity for youth in foster care with non-foster care peers. Freagon and Baron-Jeffrey drafted policies and procedures that DCFS adopted and issued as DCFS Educational Procedures 314 in January 1997 (the first ever child welfare policy in the state that addressed requirements for the education of youth in foster care). In addition, CCWE facilitated changes in the law to require and support better representation for youth receiving special education and related services.
Moreover, through the influence of CCWE, DCFS expanded its educational focus beyond K-12 to include programming that ensures preschool education and postsecondary education for more youth.
Furthermore, CCWE built collaborations with other state agencies, school districts, schools, community organizations and other institutions that benefit youth in care. For example, CCWE fostered a collaboration between DCFS and Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the school district with the largest number of youth in foster care, to create systems for networking, data sharing, training, and support that benefit students. Collaborations continue with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), regional and local school districts, local school administrators, child welfare associations, Illinois State University, Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville, the University of Illinois-Chicago and others to improve family outcomes.
Working as part of NIU’s Division of Outreach, Engagement and Research, CCWE contributes to the solutions of regional and statewide educational and social problems. The Center continues to actualize NIU’s outreach mission by teaching, conducting research, and forging partnerships that advance our understanding and enhance our efforts to serve the people in our state and beyond.