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Meet FERPA, the HIPAA of education records

Child welfare agencies across the country are responsible for the well-being of more than half a million children. Unfortunately, children and youth in foster care are the most educationally at-risk of all student populations. Due placement interruptions and the school transfers that tend to follow, only about 54% of foster care youth graduate from high school or receive a GED. As a result, child welfare laws require that case managers maintain educational records as part of the child’s case plan to ensure educational continuity and stability.

What is FERPA?

FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) is a federal law that applies to all public elementary, middle and high schools and most private and public colleges and universities.

In a nutshell, FERPA is the HIPAA of educational records, giving parents and adult students the right to file complaints with the Department of Education, review schools records, and determine who can have access to those records.

What does FERPA have to do with child welfare?

When the Fostering Connections Act was passed in 2008, the requirement was added for children in care to remain in their original schools as often as possible, but when a school change was in the child’s best interest, the child was to be promptly enrolled in a new school and all school records transferred with the child.

Since FERPA put parents in charge of sharing school information, child welfare agencies had problems gaining access to critical records. (After all, the case manager is not the child’s parent, who would automatically be granted access, and a child in care is not an adult who can sign information releases.)

Understanding how important it is to ensure that all of our children at least obtain a high school diploma, the federal government amended FERPA in January of this year with the Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA).  The USA made two important changes—permitting schools to release educational records to case managers without the parents’ consent and eliminating the requirement that schools notify parents whose children are in foster care before educational records can be released.

With these improvements, child welfare agencies can now quickly access a foster youth’s records and turn that information over to the judge, who can in turn make timely and effective judicial decisions.

This summer, we are looking into how well Nebraska is implementing parts of the Fostering Connections Act.  If you work with youth in our child welfare system and see firsthand how well (or not well) the access to educational records is going, let us know in the comments or by sending an email.

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