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Focusing on a variety of education, health and youth development issues of importance to children and families in Pennsylvania.

‘Youth Always Belong’

About 90 Pennsylvania teenagers and young adults who are currently in foster care or who have exited the foster care system recently convened on the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown campus for the 2015 Older Youth Retreat. The annual event provides an opportunity for teens to meet others in similar situations, participate in group talks, and learn how to make a successful transition to adulthood.

This year’s retreat theme was "Youth Always Belong" and the schedule was created by the participating teens, representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Office of Children, Youth, and Families (OCYF), the University Of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, and other partners.

"This retreat allows young people who were or are presently in substitute care to work together, experience new things, and learn from peers and staff who are familiar with issues facing the child welfare system," said Helen Calahane, principal investigator of Pitt's Child Welfare Education and Research Programs and faculty member in the School of Social Work.

She noted Pennsylvania has made great strides in recent years to reduce the number of children in foster care, reduce the length of time children spend in care, and decrease the use of group homes and institutions, all of which are important steps “in achieving well-being for all children and families served by the state child welfare system,” Calahane said.

Jeff Yalden, a teen author and family life coach for the past 23 years, gave a keynote speech to the teens about his own experiences and offered advice in dealing with teen drama, depression, expectations, and anxieties.

This year the youth also participated in focus groups related to the implementation of the federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (HR 4980).  The information obtained will be shared with the statewide 4980 workgroup charged with making implementation recommendations to OCYF.

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CHIP Change is Good News for Kids

Pennsylvania is making some improvements to its Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to make sure all kids enrolled in CHIP receive health care coverage that meets the minimum standards of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced this week that, starting Dec. 1, all CHIP plans will cover certain preventive care services without cost sharing for children and their families. This means families will no longer face co-pays or deductibles for services such as oral hygiene education, plaque control programs or dietary instruction.

The changes also will eliminate annual and lifetime limits on the cost of some specific services and equipment, including hearing aids, dental and orthodontic care, and eyeglasses and other vision services.

CHIP provides insurance coverage to more than 148,000 children in the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children had urged the commonwealth to work with CHIP insurers to make sure all coverage meets federal standards and we are pleased to hear these enhanced benefits will be in place by year’s end. CHIP has proven to be a successful program in helping to keep kids healthy and these changes will build on an already quality program for insuring kids.

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PPC thanks PNC Financial Services Group, Hershey Foods Corp., Highmark Blue Shield and other generous donors who make our work possible.

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As Budget Impasse Continues, Support for Pre-k Investments Remains Strong

While budget negotiations in Harrisburg remain relatively quiet, support for increasing Pennsylvania’s investments in high-quality pre-k continues to grow louder. Here’s a look at some developments around the commonwealth in just the past few days ...

In Pittsburgh, they’re talking about the growing demand for high-quality pre-k amid a lack of access due to inadequate state investments. The head of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children notes there is only enough funding to help 1 in 6 children access high-quality programs, despite the proven benefits. “When children begin with high-quality early learning, the early investment prevents the achievement gap from becoming too wide and reduces the need for costly interventions,” she said.

In Erie, former Gov. Mark Schweiker opened the 2015 Kiwanis Early Education Summit on Aug. 14 by calling for significant investments in early learning in the state budget, including a $120 million increase in pre-k investments. "There is a great impasse in Harrisburg, but I'm optimistic … $120 million is a good start, which means 14,000 kids have a shot to get into a high-quality classroom. The intellectual and human and social development and opportunities for these kids is immense,” Schweiker said.

In Scranton, the Times-Tribune editorial board noted young learners don’t have the luxury of waiting on an overdue state budget: “Young children cannot regain learning opportunities that are lost due to the failure of adult politicians to adopt a budget on time … With the summer winding down, lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf should resolve their differences and put a budget in place, including the substantial increase in pre-K funding, so that more kids can move forward rather than back.”

The bottom line: Pennsylvania needs to significantly increase state funding for high-quality pre-k so young learners in every corner of the commonwealth can benefit. Let’s get it done!

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An Update on Child Abuse History Certifications

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) recently issued the following information about applying for child abuse history clearances (now called certifications). We are passing along the DHS email and ask that you do the same to help spread the word …

This email is being sent to provide you with information related to applying for your Child Abuse History Certification (Clearance) for volunteer and non-volunteer purposes. Please note that the term “clearance” has been changed in the law to “certification,” so that these two terms have the same meaning for the purposes of this email. 

Individuals applying for their Child Abuse History Certification can apply, and if applicable, pay online at www.compass.state.pa.us/cwis. Applying for your Child Abuse History Certification online expedites the application process and provides the applicant with their results electronically. The Department of Human Services (DHS) strongly encourages applicants to apply for their Child Abuse History Certification electronically as this streamlines the process and makes it more efficient for the applicants.

For applicants who prefer to apply for their Child Abuse History Certification by paper, DHS will continue to accept paper applications. Please know that submitting a paper application takes additional time to process. 

For individuals applying for their Child Abuse History Certification for non-volunteer purposes, the fee has been reduced to $8. DHS will be issuing refunds for overpayment of fees for those applications that were submitted after July 25, 2015. For applications submitted with an overpayment prior to July 25, 2015, no refund will be issued. 

For individuals applying for their Child Abuse History Certification for volunteer purposes, the fee has been waived and no payment is required. For those applicants submitting payment with an application for volunteer purposes, the application will be processed and the payment will be returned. 

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How Medicaid Benefits ‘Aged Out’ Foster Youth

Medicaid has been helping to keep kids and families healthy since it was created 50 years ago this week, and among those who benefit from Medicaid are young adults who have aged out of foster care.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states are required to ensure continued access to Medicaid and health care services for former foster care youth until age 26. In Pennsylvania, this provision currently provides Medicaid access to nearly 1,300 former foster youth.

Why does this matter? Because children in foster care often face significantly greater health issues than their peers – issues that can follow them into adulthood. Research has shown:

  • Many children are placed in foster care because of neglect, physical or emotional abuse, parental substance abuse or abandonment, issues that often trigger or exacerbate chronic physical, developmental and/or mental health disorders.
  • Nearly 60 percent of children in foster care have at least one chronic medical condition and 25 percent suffer from three or more.
  • An estimated 50 percent to 80 percent of children in foster care suffer from moderate to severe mental health problems, and children in foster care use mental health services at a rate 15 to 20 times higher than the general pediatric population.

Medicaid coverage also is critical considering young adults who have aged out of the foster care system are at higher risk for experiencing homelessness, lack of physical and behavioral health care, unemployment and other adverse situations.

If you know of a former foster youth in Pennsylvania who needs health care coverage, please share this information with them. And they can visit the COMPASS website to sign up for Medicaid coverage.

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PPC thanks Independence Blue Cross, the Glatfelter Insurance Group and other generous donors who make our work possible.

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A Child Welfare Budget Update

Pennsylvania’s elected officials are still trying to negotiate a state budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1, after Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a spending plan sent to him by the General Assembly in late June.

The vetoed spending plan would have made severe cuts to county child welfare funding, reducing county funding by nearly $132 million, or 12 percent, from last year. This week, a new budget bill (HB 1460) was introduced in the House that still includes this reduced amount. While this new bill is simply a budget “vehicle” that will undergo revisions as budget talks continue, it’s important for the governor and lawmakers to understand why this level of cut isn’t appropriate.

Pennsylvania enacted 23 new child protection laws in the past two years and one more was recently signed into law. These bills were much-needed improvements in our efforts to protect children from abuse and neglect, but they also will require additional resources at the county level to keep kids safe.

We already are seeing an increase in the number of child abuse reports in Pennsylvania, and this means larger county caseloads and the need for more resources, not fewer. Without sufficient funding, counties will be forced to prioritize their limited staff resources to fulfill their statutory responsibilities in child protection and may be restricted in their ability to provide families the services and supports they need to safely care for their children in their homes.

A spending cut is heading in the wrong direction. We’re hopeful this will be addressed in budget negotiations and we encourage you to share these concerns with your legislators.

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An Update on PA Budget Talks

Pennsylvania is starting a new fiscal year today without a spending plan, after Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a budget bill sent to him yesterday by the General Assembly. While the governor and legislative leaders are back at the negotiating table, here’s a recap of where things stand on several issues that impact the commonwealth’s kids …

EARLY LEARNING

One area of agreement is the need to increase funding for high-quality pre-k, though the amount of the increase remains to be determined.

Gov. Wolf had proposed increasing funding for Pre-K Counts by $100 million and the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program (HSSAP) by $20 million – investments that would allow an additional 14,000 of Pennsylvania’s 3- and 4-year-olds to benefit from high-quality pre-k in the coming school year.

The budget approved by the General Assembly includes an additional $25 million for Pre-K Counts and another $5 million for HSSAP, which would increase access to an additional 3,500 children and marks a positive step forward.

An increase in pre-k funding is badly needed, given more than 200,000 of our 3- and 4-year-olds lack access to high-quality pre-k. The more we can invest now, the more children we can reach with this once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity that has been shown to save money in the long run.

K-12

This is another area where all sides agree more money is warranted, but they haven’t yet agreed on how much.

The budget lawmakers approved includes an additional $100 million for basic education funding, though the governor is seeking an increase of $410 million. And while lawmakers approved an increase of $20 million for special education, Gov. Wolf wants a $100 million increase.

There also appears to be growing support for the funding formula developed by the Basic Education Funding Commission – a formula that includes many of the critical elements necessary to ensure all students have a chance to succeed no matter where they live. That’s hopeful news for students and taxpayers.

CHILD WELFARE

The vetoed spending plan would have made severe cuts to county child welfare funding, reducing county funding by nearly $132 million from last year. This is a troubling development given the bipartisan efforts we’ve made in recent years to better protect children from abuse and neglect.

Pennsylvania enacted 23 new child protection laws in the past two years and one more bill (HB 1276) just passed the General Assembly with overwhelming support. We already are seeing an increase in the number of child abuse reports. This means larger county caseloads and the need for more resources, not fewer, so a spending cut is heading in the wrong direction. We’re hopeful this will be addressed in budget negotiations.

CHILDREN’S HEALTH

A bill (HB 857) reauthorizing Pennsylvania’s CHIP program for two more years (extending it through 2017) awaits a final Senate vote after the House unanimously approved it in April. Given the longstanding, bipartisan support for CHIP since it was launched more than 20 years ago, we expect this bill to be enacted without any issues. The deadline for passage is Dec. 31, 2015.

We’ll keep you updated in the days ahead on how budget talks are progressing and how you can help us speak up for Pennsylvania’s children.

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Did You #MeetTheKids?

In case you missed it, the 23rd Annual Pennsylvania Permanency Conference was held this week in Lancaster. The three-day event drew hundreds of child welfare professionals, current and prospective foster or adoptive families, kinship care providers and others focused on child welfare and permanency.

The conference theme this year was “Meet the Kids” (and you can find more info and photos from the conference by looking up the hashtag #MeetTheKids on Twitter and other social media).

Among the takeaways from this year’s conference:

  • The Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network (SWAN) has helped facilitate more than 38,000 adoptions since it began in 1992.
  • About 15,000 Pennsylvania children are in the foster care system on any given day.
  • There were 1,861 adoptions and 602 permanent legal custodianships in Pennsylvania last year alone.
  • More than 2,500 Pennsylvania children are currently waiting to be adopted.

To learn more about SWAN, visit www.adoptpakids.org or call 1-800-585-SWAN.

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Supreme Court Ruling Preserves Health Coverage for PA Children

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued a ruling that gives the Affordable Care Act – and the health coverage it has provided to millions of Americans – a strong, definitive endorsement. In a 6-3 decision, the high court ruled that the ACA was designed to provide a tax credit to any American who qualifies, regardless of whether that tax credit is obtained through a state marketplace or the federal HealthCare.gov site that we use in Pennsylvania.

More than 380,000 Pennsylvanians who qualify for such a tax credit have coverage now and could have gone uninsured if the court ruled the other way. This decision is good news for many Pennsylvania children, since research shows that children who live in families where their parents are insured are more likely to be insured themselves. Today’s court ruling helps those families stay insured, which increases the likelihood of their kids being covered, too.

There are still about 147,000 Pennsylvania children without health insurance - representing about 1 in 20 of our kids - but thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, we are close to reaching the finish line for quality care for all kids.

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Basic Education Funding Report Goes to Lawmakers

Efforts to create a better way to fund Pennsylvania’s public schools took a big step forward today.

Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission unanimously approved a set of recommendations for equitably funding our public schools, including a proposal for a basic education funding formula that accounts for critical factors such as students living in poverty and each school district’s size and wealth. The recommendations now go to the General Assembly for action.

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children is pleased to see this important development, given Pennsylvania is among just three states that lacks a basic education funding formula. And federal data shows Pennsylvania’s state and local per-pupil spending in its poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest districts, by far the largest such spending gap in the country.

All of this adds up to inequities that are taking away opportunities for all of Pennsylvania’s children to receive a quality education. Pennsylvania needs a predictable, sustainable way to fund its public schools, and the commission’s report is a solid step toward achieving that goal.

Of course, a formula alone isn’t a definitive fix to our school funding problems. As PPC President and CEO Joan Benso noted: “Long-term solutions also require an ongoing, unwavering commitment by state leaders to ensure public schools are adequately funded so students and teachers have the resources they need to succeed in the classroom. Adequate funding needs to happen every year, not just once in a while.”

And while the commission addressed some important funding elements in its recommendations, there are additional funding challenges - such as the existing racial disparities in how we fund schools - that require further attention.

To tackle these ongoing challenges, we joined with other organizations from across the commonwealth to form the Campaign for Fair Education Funding. If you believe our students and schools deserve adequate, equitable funding now and in the years to come, please join the effort.

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PPC thanks PNC Financial Services Group, Hershey Foods Corporation, Highmark Blue Shield and other generous donors who make our work possible.

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Comments from readers of Blogging4Children do not necessarily represent the views of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.