Homeless Children in Emergency Shelters: Need for Prereferral Intervention and Potential Eligibility for Special Education
Zima, Bonnie T., Forness, Steven R., Bussing, Regina, Benjamin, Bernadette, Behavioral Disorders
*School-age homeless children living in shelters face the dual challenge of being at risk for behavioral disorders (BD) and learning problems yet having limited access to special education programs (Heflin & Rudy, 1991). Because they live in an environment marked by high residential instability and frequent school changes, the identification of need for special education services for homeless children may be especially problematic. Early detection is particularly important for school-age homeless children because prereferral interventions may be most effective during the elementary school years (Fuchs, Fuchs, Bahr, Fernstrom, & Stecker, 1990; Graden, 1989; Pugach & Johnson, 1995; Slavin et al., 1991). The magnitude of need for special education services takes on more significance given that up to 100,000 children may be homeless on any particular night, and twice this number may be living temporarily with relatives or friends in overcrowded conditions (Burns, 1991; Mihaly, 1991; Tower & White, 1989; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1989). Few studies, however, have described the level of need for special education services among homeless children, the first step toward designing interventions that may improve access to special education programs.
Approximately one third of children from sheltered homeless families are estimated to have BD (Fox, Barrnett, Davies, & Bird, 1990; Masten, Miliotis, Graham-Bermann, Ramirez, & Neeman, 1993; Rescorla, Parker, & Stolley, 1991), and up to 50% may have significant developmental delays (Bassuk & Rubin, 1987; Fox et al., 1990; Wood, Valdez, Hayashi, & Shen, 1990). In a Los Angeles County sample, for example, nearly four in five sheltered homeless children screened positive for BD or for a severe academic delay (Zima, Wells, & Freeman, 1994). Moreover, almost one half of sheltered homeless children have been found to have acute and chronic health problems, including elevated blood lead levels, placing them at additional risk for learning problems (Alperstein, Rappaport, & Flanigan, 1988; Miller & Lin, 1988). Whether the level of need for special education programs among homeless children is comparable to or exceeds that of low-income children who have housing is a question that remains open to debate (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1990; Masten et al., 1993; Wood et al., 1990).
Some of the adverse effects of residential instability and poverty for children (Neiman, 1988) may be ameliorated by schooling, especially if the schooling is individualized to meet the child's academic needs. Rescorla and colleagues (1991) found a significantly higher level of BD and developmental delays among younger homeless children who were not in preschool compared to children of poor families who had housing. Rivlin (1990) has written eloquently about the concepts of personal space and personal place, emphasizing the socioemotional devastation that occurs when children do not have a specific physical area that belongs to them on a stable basis. In these instances, prereferral interventions and special education programs could assist homeless pupils at risk for disability to develop the essential personal space and personal place by providing structured experiences, consistent environments, and supportive professionals that may be absent from other aspects of their lives (Heflin & Rudy, 1991; Wiley & Ballard, 1993).
Yet, children who are homeless face a number of obstacles in accessing special education programs, services guaranteed to them by federal law (Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, 1987; U.S. Department of Education, 1995). Frequent school changes and poor attendance may make it impossible to differentiate an adjustment reaction from signs of an emerging behavioral or learning problem. The burden for identification may fall heavily on school professionals, because parental awareness of BD, LD, or MR may be poor, and contact with mental health professionals is low (Zima et al. …