Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Sharon Freagon
Sharon Freagon

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

May 14, 2007

Child advocate Sharon Freagon to retire
from Center for Child Welfare and Education

Center’s assistant director, NIU professor named as successors

DeKalb — Sharon Freagon, director of the Center for Child Welfare and Education at Northern Illinois University since its inception in 2000, will retire June 30.

The center, which strives to improve educational outcomes for children in the state’s foster care system, stems from Freagon’s 1994 appointment as chair of an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services task force on education.

Angela Baron-Jeffrey, the center’s assistant director, and Toni Tollerud, a professor in the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, will succeed Freagon. (See related press release.)

NIU President John G. Peters and the director of DCFS will continue to co-chair the center’s advisory board.

“Children in our state’s welfare system need an advocate who is passionate, tireless, committed and strong, and they have had such a person in Sharon Freagon. Her service to these young ones and their caretakers has come directly from her limitless heart,” Peters said. “It’s my firm belief that Sharon has mirrored NIU’s ideals – to help our neighbors, to improve our region, to endorse education for all – and has done so nobly. We all will miss her greatly.”

“It’s not that I’m ready to retire,” said Freagon, who is 65 and has 30 years of service to NIU. “I plan to work with the Arthritis Foundation and for women’s heart health. It’s been a career of helping young people, and now maybe I’ll go on to advocate for the opposite end of the spectrum.”

A national leader

Yet none in the child advocacy field will forget Freagon’s powerful voice and open arms for children in need.

She has met children whose parents have shot them in the face with a BB gun, burned their skin with cigarettes, poured cleaning fluids down their throats or abandoned them in cribs for months without interaction or simple care.

“I’ve always been an advocate for children I view as the most oppressed. Children taken from their biological parents are doubly traumatized are and the most oppressed children I have seen or worked with. I feel it’s an honor to serve them,” Freagon said.

“You see the worst kind of physical abuse that you could ever imagine. When you can help to pull youngsters out of that trauma they’re experiencing, and get some positive expectations for the future, it’s totally rewarding.”

Freagon came to NIU in 1977 from Nashville, Tenn., where she worked as the director of a residential agency that placed children with special needs in group homes or in foster care. Many also had been abused, she said.

Recognized as a national leader in the school inclusion movement for children with disabilities, she continues to consult in that area and has testified in numerous courtroom trials.

Most of her hours as an NIU professor in what is now the Department of Teaching and Learning were devoted to federal and state grants for research and demonstration: She has enjoyed external funding every year of her NIU career. The rest of her time was spent preparing teachers of children with severe intellectual disabilities.

Birth of a center

An early-morning call in July of 1994 changed everything.

Jess McDonald, then the director of DCFS, asked Freagon to chair a new task force. The agency was defending itself in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union – the case remains in court to this day – and had little or no data on the educational outcomes of children under its supervision.

“He wanted a strong advocate to chair that committee,” Freagon said. “I told him I would do it if I could be involved in the implementation. I did not want to write a report and have it sit on the shelf.”

Freagon and Baron-Jeffrey, a graduate student at the time, interviewed foster parents, case workers, administrators and children during a nine-month study. Their final report included 60 recommendations, all of which have been implemented in the years since.

In 1997, an official partnership between NIU and DCFS began as the Educational Access Project.

McDonald soon suggested the creation of the center, an idea eventually approved by the Illinois Board of Higher Education in 2000. By that time, Freagon had dispatched “education advisers” into all regions of the state to handle the school-related problems of children in the system.

Thirteen advisers – six are in Chicago, three in the central part of the state and two each in northern and southern Illinois – work more than 3,000 situations each year referred by foster parents, DCFS case workers and even the children themselves. They also train more than 4,000 people each year in educational matters related to foster children.

NIU’s center is “seen as an unbiased party,” Freagon said, and the advisers have added adoptive parents to their purview.

Other center services include policy development and review as well as the collection and sharing of data.

In June 2006, NIU and its center staff convened and presided over a day-long symposium on trauma in education.

Participants included NIU’s president, the director and staff members from DCFS, staff members of the Illinois State Board of Education, university professors, school superintendents, neurobiologists, clinical psychologists, attorneys and even a judge.

Others represented the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services, the Child Trauma Academy of Houston, the Allendale Association, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Massachusetts Advocates for Children, the MILL of Rockford and the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Freagon brought them together from all sides to get on the same page and speak the same language. The group ended the day with a list of agreed-upon research questions and a commitment to develop an information-rich Web site.

“I’m most proud that I, as a part of NIU, have been able to work co closely with a state agency that directly serves children and that we – my staff and I – have been so well-received in the system,” she said, “leading to our contributing to the reforms that DCFS has gone through, making them one of the national leaders in the country.”

Christine Sorensen, dean of the NIU College of Education, attributes much of the success to Freagon’s leadership.

“Her passion and her commitment to serving the children that she serves through her program is just tremendous,” Sorensen said. “She has built a wonderful operation.”

A long road ahead

Yet challenges remain.

Illinois’ current foster care population numbers about 17,000, the smallest group since 1993 and merely a third of its size in 1997. A focus on “permanency” – moving children into adoptions and guardianships – accounts for the sharp reduction in cases.

There are unintended consequences, however. Transferring children out of the system means fewer opportunities for child development services, and high school graduation rates already are dismal.

A large number of children in the system are affected by trauma (mostly neglect, followed by family violence, grief and physical harm), the incidence of which climbs as the children grow older. Sexual abuse accounts for less than 5 percent of the cases.

Several neuroscientists at the symposium noted that trauma causes chemical and physical changes in the brain that lead to what uninformed observers see as “acting out.”

Yet one of Freagon’s joys (and disappointments given the timing of her retirement) is that “the psychiatrists are now starting to see it my way.” Instead of simply trying to diagnose mental illness alongside one-hour-per-week therapy sessions using a medical model, she said, psychiatrists are “looking at how people live” and how “trauma does affect education and lifestyle.”

Teachers also have grown more understanding, she said: More now view troublesome behavior from foster children as a traumatic response and try to react or intervene in a more positive way.

Perhaps most encouraging is the one constant in every story.

“Every youngster wants an education,” Freagon said. “An education is something no one can take away from you.”

Yet “there will always be a need for a center like this as long as there are children who are abused and neglected in our society. If it could stop, and I would love for it to stop, that would be wonderful. But we would need to get rid of poverty. We would need better training of parents. We would need earlier intervention.”

Federal pressure that mandates school achievement isn’t helping, she added.

“I’d love to work myself out of a job, but the reality is I’m not,” Freagon said. “There’s always going to be some child who’s the last car on the train.”

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