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July 2012Vol. 13, No. 6Dependency Court Focuses on Education

An article in the winter 2011-2012 issue of Youth Law News, the quarterly legal journal of the National Center for Youth Law, highlights the Middle School Education Court (MSEC) in Santa Clara County, CA. The court is the first education-focused collaborative juvenile court in the country.

Studies continue to show that, compared to the general population, youth in foster care generally have lower standardized tests scores and poorer school grades. They also have higher rates of absenteeism, misbehavior, grade repetition, and involvement in special education programs. In response to this glaring achievement gap, MSEC's goal is to help these youth achieve academic success—and ultimately graduate more foster youth from high school—by providing comprehensive educational supports.

As part of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Dependency Court, MSEC utilizes the knowledge and services of various child welfare advocates, including the Department of Family and Children's Services and the Office of Education, to support 24 middle school-aged youth who are receiving Family Reunification or Permanent Placement Services.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Teresa Guerrero-Daley, who presides over MSEC, dedicates every Wednesday to youth in this program. Collaborative, interagency morning hearings include the judge, educational representatives and advocates, social workers, and the child's lawyer. Discussion at these hearings is centered on the youth's MSEC Report, which is the result of an evaluation and assessment of the child's academic history, current level of academic functioning, and recommendations from outside education professionals. In the afternoons, Judge Guerrero-Daley meets one-on-one with the youth because she believes it is important that children have a "voice" in their education plans.

MSEC is in the second of its 2-year pilot phase and has already produced promising results.

  • Three of 24 participating children have tested into gifted and talented school programs.
  • Six participants are now receiving the special education support they need and were not receiving prior to the program.
  • Less tangible but no less important is the change in outlook for many of these youth—they now realize, many for the first time, that they have a supportive network of adults with plans to help them succeed.

In addition to improving educational outcomes, the court hopes to also achieve the following:

  • Increase collaboration among schools, child welfare, and the community
  • Increase awareness of school and community-based resources
  • Identify service gaps and improve access
  • Increase stakeholder awareness of education-related issues of youth in care

With the pilot phase ending, funding obstacles make expansion questionable. However, MSEC hopes to serve as a model for other counties.

The article, “New Juvenile Dependency Court Focuses on Foster Youth Education,” by Kristy Luk, is available on the National Center for Youth Law website: