When Legal Guardians Are Not Present: Enrolling Students on Their Own

In a number of instances, however, children and youth who are enrolling in a school may not be living with their parents or legal guardians. Frequently, children in families experiencing homelessness are sent to live temporarily with friends or relatives. This type of living arrangement has been especially prevalent in families displaced by the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes. In other situations, youth have been forced to leave home due to abusive environments or are on their own for other reasons. These children and youth, in most cases, fit the definition of homeless, unaccompanied youth in the McKinney-Vento Act: a youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian [42 U.S.C. §11434A(6)] and eligible for immediate school enrollment.  The McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to enroll homeless children and youth in school immediately, even if they lack required enrollment documents [42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(3)(C), (g)(1)(H)(iv), (g)(1) (F)(ii)]. (“Enroll” and “enrollment” are defined as “attending classes and participating fully in school activities” [42 U.S.C. §11434A(1)].) The Act further requires states to review and revise any policy that may act as a barrier to the enrollment of homeless children and youth and requires states to give particular attention to guardianship issues [42 U.S.C.
§§11432(g)(7)].

Therefore, schools may not condition school enrollment upon the receipt of proof of legal guardianship by caregivers of homeless,unaccompanied youth; nor may they require caregivers to become legal guardians within a certain period of time after the child enrolls in school. The decision to seek legal guardianship is a serious decision that affects significantly the legal rights of the parent and caregiver well beyond the education arena. Although that step may be appropriate in some cases, it will not be in others.  In addition, it is important to note that the absence of an available caregiver must not impede enrollment. Unaccompanied, homeless youth who are on their own completely must be enrolled in school immediately.