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Focusing on the initiative- dubbed the Porch Light Project – to safely reduce the number of children and youth in foster care in PA and to ensure a forever family for every child.

More Child Protection Bills Become Law

Great news to share! The General Assembly and Gov. Tom Corbett this month completed a two-year effort to improve Pennsylvania’s child protection laws.

Last week, the governor signed two more bills that were officially part of the House and Senate child protection packages and based on recommendations of the Task Force on Child Protection. He also signed a third piece of legislation into law that contained a proposal endorsed by the task force. Here’s a recap of the recent activity:

House Bill 435 (now Act 153 of 2014) was signed on Oct. 22. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Dan Moul (R-Adams), establishes new background check requirements for individuals who volunteer with children. Volunteers will be required to submit a state background check and a child abuse clearance statement. If volunteers haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for 10 consecutive years, they will also have to submit a federal background check. Additionally, volunteers and people who work with children in a professional capacity will have to submit updated clearances every three years.

The original bill was amended to eliminate provisions that would have updated associated employment bans for people who work with or volunteer with children. In the alternative, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the Pennsylvania Department of Education will have to collaborate over the next year to issue recommendations on how employment ban laws should be improved and ensure parity among child-serving institutions.

Although PPC was disappointed that appropriate limitations on those who work or volunteer with children based on certain criminal offenses and a person’s history of child abuse was not resolved this session, we are happy that the General Assembly did not completely ignore the issue. PPC looks forward to working with policymakers next session to achieve parity in employment bans for those who work or volunteer with child-serving institutions.

Senate Bill 27 (now Act 176 of 2014) was signed on Oct. 22. Sponsored by Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery), the measure authorizes the exchange of information in suspected child abuse cases between licensed medical practitioners and county agencies. This will enable child welfare agencies to better respond to the health needs of children who are involved in a child abuse investigation or receiving child welfare services.

In addition to these two bills, the Senate earlier this month amended a proposal to address educator sexual misconduct into House Bill 1816, sponsored by Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill). The bill, now Act 168 of 2014, prohibits a practice known as “passing the trash.”

This practice occurs when school districts ask employees accused of inappropriate contact with students to resign in exchange for a confidentiality agreement and, sometimes, help finding a new job in a different school district. Pennsylvania is now one of only three states that ban this practice. The original bills to ban “passing the trash” in Pennsylvania were championed by Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. David Maloney (R-Berks).

PPC commends the work of our state leaders in prioritizing and advancing more than 20 pieces of child protection legislation in the 2013-14 legislative session.

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Ensuring Educational Stability for Foster Youth

More than 21,000 children and youth lived in foster care during 2013. When these young people were removed from their families and entered foster care, they became our collective responsibility.

Part of that responsibility includes ensuring their educational success, which requires cooperation between child welfare agencies, courts and schools. Unfortunately, this cooperation doesn’t currently exist for all children in foster care, and the Pennsylvania General Assembly has rightfully decided to examine how such cooperation could be improved.

Earlier this month, the House Children and Youth Committee heard testimony from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and others on the importance of promoting education stability for children in foster care (the focus of the hearing was on two bills, House Bill 569 and House Bill 973). Promoting education stability means, among other things, making sure children who enter foster care continue attending the same school whenever possible or are immediately enrolled in a different school. School districts are a critical partner in ensuring education stability for children living in foster care, but current federal and state requirements to make sure schools do their part fall short.

To learn more about this issue, you can read recent coverage of the House hearing from the Scranton Times-Tribune and Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.

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New Federal Law Includes Foster Care Improvements

Earlier this month, Congress passed The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980), which now awaits President Obama’s signature.

This bi-partisan measure, introduced in June, was a combination of several House and Senate bills intended to address the prevention of domestic child sex trafficking in relation to the child welfare system (H.R. 4058, S.1878), the reauthorization and expansion of the adoption incentive program (H.R. 3205, S. 1876), and improvements to child support (H.R. 1896, S. 1877).

Congress’ action is good news for children and youth in foster care because the act will require states to develop protocols to identify, report and provide services to trafficking victims who were involved with the child welfare system. It also requires states to implement a “reasonable and prudent parent standard” to enable foster parents and other caregivers to make parental decisions regarding health, safety, extracurricular activities, etc. This standard will help ensure children and youth in foster care have greater normalcy in daily activities, and will help streamline decision making versus needing to rely heavily on agency policy and the courts.

In addition to addressing safety and well-being, the new law makes a number of changes to promote permanent families for children and youth. It limits the use of the court-ordered permanency goal of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), which too often translates into long-term foster care. Also, the measure reauthorizes and expands the federal adoption incentives program, which provides additional funding to states that successfully facilitate adoption for children waiting in foster care for a family. The changes to this incentive program should help ensure Pennsylvania will continue to benefit from these incentive funds.

For further information, the Children’s Defense Fund has created a helpful summary of the act.

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A Win for Former Foster Youth

You might have heard the federal government recently approved Pennsylvania’s “Healthy PA” proposal to expand insurance coverage to more low-income adults. What you might not know is the feds rightfully rejected a part of the proposal that would have created a needless barrier to insuring former foster youth.

The original “Healthy PA” proposal would have required former foster youth to meet certain work requirements at age 21 and required some “aged out” foster youth to begin paying monthly Medicaid premiums in 2016. Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children was among those who opposed this idea and asked the feds to reject it. Many of you wrote letters supporting our position.

Under federal law, foster youth who age out of foster care as they enter adulthood - often with little or no support from family - must be provided Medicaid until age 26. This requirement is meant to ensure these young people have the same access to health insurance coverage as other young adults who are legally allowed to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26.

Research shows the many challenges facing youth who age out of foster care, including the greater likelihood of homelessness, lack of employment and absence of health coverage. Allowing former foster youth to remain on Medicaid without needless fees or unfair requirements helps them overcome obstacles as they move into adulthood.

We’re glad to see the federal government agreed and we’re pleased that so many of you joined us in standing up for former foster youth.

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What's Behind the Numbers on Child Maltreatment?

National data from our partners at the Annie E. Casey KIDS COUNT project shows the proportion of young children experiencing maltreatment has grown by 11 percent between 2004 and 2012. In 2012 alone, nine children out of every 1,000 across the country were confirmed victims of maltreatment. This translates to more than 600,000 children nationwide – 40 percent of whom are under age 5.

So how does Pennsylvania fare in this national perspective? The commonwealth actually has seen a slight decline in the proportion of children under age 5 experiencing maltreatment over the last few years. These young children make up about 18 percent of all children in Pennsylvania who experienced maltreatment in 2012, versus 40 percent nationwide.

This variation likely has something to do with how Pennsylvania has defined child abuse. Our definition has been less stringent than many other states, so what constituted maltreatment in other states might not have been classified as maltreatment here. But with new child protection laws going into effect in Pennsylvania, these data trends may change. Some of the ways Pennsylvania strengthened its definition of child abuse are particularly focused on protecting very young children from abuse. For example, forcefully shaking, slapping or striking a child under the age of one will now constitute child abuse (beginning in December 2014).

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Take Some Time to #MeetTheKids

If you’re familiar with Pennsylvania’s Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network, or SWAN, you might recall a powerful video campaign last year called “Meet the Kids.”

The campaign featured real kids – not actors – who were in foster care. They spoke from the heart about their experiences, hopes and expectations as they awaited their “forever families.” As a result of the campaign, six of the 12 kids featured in the “Meet the Kids” debut are among the many Pennsylvania foster youth who have been matched with permanent families in the past year.

We’re happy to share the news that “Meet the Kids” is back for a second year, and you can hear the unscripted, first-person stories of 12 more young people in the foster care system. We hope you’ll take the time to watch these moving videos on YouTube and share them on social media using the hashtag #MeetTheKids.

And if you’re interested in becoming a foster or adoptive parent (or know someone who is) visit the SWAN website at adoptpakids.org or call 1-800-585-SWAN.

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“Adverse Childhood Experiences” Among PA Kids

A new report came out today examining the prevalence of “adverse childhood experiences” (or ACEs) across the country. It found Pennsylvania is not unlike many other states when it comes to the types of ACEs impacting children.

So what exactly are “adverse childhood experiences” and why do they matter?

They are events in the life of a child that could have caused them trauma, and ultimately impact their long-term health and well-being. Research has linked the number of ACEs children experience to obesity, medical conditions and even life expectancy.

These are the leading ACEs among Pennsylvania children ages 0-17:

ACE

Prevalence (percentage of children)

Economic hardship

25%

Divorce

19%

Mental illness

10%

Violence

10%

Alcohol

10%

Domestic violence

8%

Key findings in the report include:

  • Just under half (46 percent) of children in the U.S. have experienced at least one ACE.
  • Economic hardship is the most common ACE reported nationally and in almost all states, followed by divorce or separation of a parent or guardian.
  • The prevalence of ACEs increases with a child’s age, except for economic hardship, which was reported about equally for children of all ages – a dynamic that reflects high levels of poverty among young families.
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs, exposure to neighborhood violence, and the occurrence of mental illness are among the most commonly reported ACEs in every state.

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Medicaid Helps Keep Foster Youth Healthy

It’s common knowledge that children in foster care typically face obstacles other kids might never have to deal with, but it might surprise you to realize how many of those challenges relate to health care.

The fact is, about 80 percent of children in foster care have a chronic medical condition and 25 percent have three or more chronic health problems. These chronic conditions run the gamut from asthma to growth failure to neurological problems. And for many of these foster youth, Medicaid is a critical means of ensuring they have access to the essential health care and supportive services they need deal with these chronic conditions and help ensure their long-term success as they head into adulthood.

The importance of Medicaid in keeping foster youth healthy is a key reason Medicaid coverage remains available for former foster youth up to age 26 who had Medicaid coverage before they “aged out” of foster care.

When we talk about ways we can better ensure foster youth have the necessary resources to overcome the challenges they face, Medicaid needs to always be a key part of that discussion.

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Unifying Our Focus on Foster Youth

Some positive developments have taken place on a national scale in recent weeks when it comes to foster care.

As part of National Foster Care Month in May, the White House’s Domestic Policy Council convened a workgroup from across seven federal departments to focus on a single goal: identifying opportunities to better help current and former foster youth. This broad-scale meeting of the minds resulted in numerous outreach and public education efforts meant to improve outcomes for the nearly 400,000 children and youth in foster care each year and the 24,000 young adults who “age out” of foster care annually without a permanent legal family.

Among the efforts that have resulted:

  • New reports from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development  on housing for youth who have aged out of foster care.
  • A new web-based resource from the U.S. Department of Education providing resources and information to educators who work with foster youth.
  • Guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on outreach strategies to ensure children and youth keep Medicaid coverage when they transition home after foster care or age out of care.

Given the extraordinary challenges often faced by foster youth, it is heartening to see federal government working cooperatively and proactively to help ease these challenges.

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Child Abuse Complaints Set Record in 2013

The number of suspected child abuse reports in the commonwealth reached a record high in 2013, though abuse substantiations declined slightly, according to the Annual Child Abuse Report released last week by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

The report found:

  • There were 26,944 reports of suspected abuse in 2013, up from 26,664 reports in 2012.
  • 3,425 reports of abuse – or 12.7 percent – were substantiated in 2013, compared to 3,565 substantiated cases (13.4 percent) in 2012.
  • 302 substantiated cases, or 9 percent, involved children who had been abused before. This was up from 283 (8 percent) re-abuse cases in 2012.
  • 38 children died from abuse in 2013, up from 33 in 2012.

The latest report marked the second year in a row that Pennsylvania set a record for suspected reports of child abuse – a trend that quite likely has been driven in part by the increased public awareness about child abuse in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and other high-profile abuse cases. Yet substantiation rates have declined, just as they did last year.

One reason Pennsylvania tends to have among the lowest child abuse substantiation rates in the nation is because our legal threshold for defining abuse has been set higher than in other states, essentially making it more difficult to meet the legal definition of abuse, noted Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President and CEO Joan Benso.

“Thankfully, a new law that will take effect later this year lowers the threshold for what constitutes child abuse, particularly relating to physical abuse. Other measures signed into law last month eliminate a separate definition of ‘student abuse’ that effectively set a higher threshold for defining abuse by school employees,” Benso said. “Together, these laws will improve our collective efforts to make Pennsylvania’s children safer.”

Anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect can anonymously report their concerns to ChildLine, the state’s toll-free hotline, at 1-800-932-0313 (TDD 1-866-872-1677).

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