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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.

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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Emancipation Proclamations … Stories from Foster Youth

In the spirit of National Foster Care Month, take a few minutes to watch the video below and hear the first-hand accounts of young people who are veterans of the foster care system. Their stories convey the challenges and the triumphs of growing up in foster care. And in many cases, the lives of these young people were turned around by someone who offered the time and patience to make a difference.

Watch this short video – Emancipation Proclamations – and ask yourself: “What difference can I make?”

Stayed tuned to PPC’s Porch Light Project as we continue our efforts to help ensure every child has a “forever family” – a home where the porch light is always left on to guide and welcome a child home.

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For Some, Mother’s Day Can Be Bittersweet

Many of us will take time this weekend to reflect on the important role our mothers had in shaping our lives. We’ll spend time with our moms, call them to say “happy Mother’s Day” or fondly remember the great times we had with them over the years.

But for some, Mother’s Day will be a bittersweet, or perhaps even meaningless, event. This is the case for many children in foster care. You might not know May is not only the month when we celebrate moms. It’s also National Foster Care Month - the official month for recognizing the thousands of foster children in Pennsylvania and hundreds of thousands across the country who are without their moms (and dads) either temporarily or permanently for any number of tragic reasons.

As we recognize National Foster Care Month, each of us should ask ourselves what we can do to improve the lives of children in foster care? How can we improve the odds these children will someday be able to celebrate Mother’s Day like many of us are privileged to do? We should recognize the great strides we’ve already made as there are far fewer children in foster care in Pennsylvania today than were in foster care even five years ago, but we also must recommit ourselves to the many aspects of Pennsylvania’s child welfare and foster care systems where further work remains.

Stayed tuned to the efforts of PPC’s Porch Light Project as we continue our efforts to help ensure every child has a “forever family” – a home where the porch light is always left on to guide and welcome a child home.

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An End to ‘Student Abuse’

Two important child protection bills related to abuse in schools were approved by state lawmakers this week and now await the governor’s signature.

The bills - one sponsored by Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) and the other by Rep. Dave Maloney (R-Berks) - abolish a legal definition of “student abuse” that effectively set a higher threshold for defining child abuse by school employees. Once these bills are signed into law, school employees will be held to the same legal standard as any other adult when it comes to determining whether a child has been abused and Pennsylvania will no longer be the only state to have this odd, troublesome double standard in its child abuse definitions. Abuse is abuse, and it should be treated the same no matter where it occurs.

This improvement to our child abuse laws has been a long time coming. Sen. Fontana first introduced legislation to repeal “student abuse” in 2005 and for nine years he and PPC, as well as many other child advocates, have sought a repeal of “student abuse.” Fortunately, the state’s Task Force on Child Protection prioritized this issue in its comprehensive recommendations to the General Assembly on how to improve Pennsylvania’s child protection laws.

We congratulate Sen. Fontana and Rep. Maloney for championing this issue in their respective chambers and for their commitment to ensuring strong child protection policy in our schools. PPC applauds the General Assembly for continuing to demonstrate their commitment to making our kids safer.

Stay tuned to PPC for updates on remaining child protection bills that await legislative action.

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New Child Protection Laws Signed

In case you missed it, Gov. Tom Corbett signed four more child protection bills into law yesterday, adding to the great work state officials have done in recent months to better protect kids from abuse and neglect. The newest laws include:

  • Senate Bill 21, sponsored by Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), which identifies who is legally obligated to report suspected child abuse and requires them to report directly to ChildLine. Ultimately, it eliminates reporting to authorities through chain-of-command policies in some institutions – one of the key recommendations of the state’s Task Force on Child Protection.
  • Senate Bill 33, sponsored by Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery), which provides employment protection for those who report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect, so no one hesitates to make a report out of fear of losing a job.
  • House Bill 431, sponsored by Rep. Mauree Gingrich (R-Lebanon), which requires training for certain licensed or certified mandated reporters on how to identify and report suspected child abuse. Training requirements must be met to obtain or renew a license.
  • House Bill 436, sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery), which sets penalties for failure to report child abuse and designates attorneys who are affiliated with certain child-serving institutions as mandated reporters. The bill also provides for confidentiality protections.

Stay tuned to PPC for updates on more child protection bills we want to see enacted.

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More Child Protection Laws Signed

We wanted to share the good news that Gov. Tom Corbett signed three additional child protection bills into law earlier today, building on the work Pennsylvania has been done in recent months to better protect our kids.

The measures signed today include:

  • Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny), creates a statewide database to help authorities more efficiently and effectively receive and respond to reports of abuse and neglect.
  • House Bill 316, sponsored by Rep. Julie Harhart (R-Northampton), increases critical funding to expand the work of child advocacy centers (CACs) around the state, which provide investigation and treatment services to children who suffered sexual and other forms of abuse.
  • House Bill 89, sponsored by Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), provides additional funding for CACs by repurposing unused Drug Awareness Resistance Education (DARE) vehicle license plate funds. 

With these and other recently enacted child protection laws, state policymakers are demonstrating a commitment to keeping kids safe. Stay tuned to PPC for updates on more child protection bills we want to see enacted.

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The Ongoing Effort to Protect Our Kids

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the work that is being done - and the work that remains - to protect children from abuse and neglect.

It was 16 months ago that the state’s Task Force on Child Protection completed its thoughtful, thorough review of existing laws and provided recommendations on ways to better protect kids. At the beginning of 2013, with recommendations in hand, the legislature got off to a strong start in advancing many of the recommendations made by the task force through numerous pieces of legislation. To date, about a dozen new child protection laws have been enacted and lawmakers continue working to advance some remaining pieces of legislation.

One of the critical issues still on the table involves updating our state’s mandated reporter requirements. These proposed changes not only would identify who must report suspected child abuse, but how reports of abuse are to be made. Helping ensure mandated reporters are adequately trained is also an important part of this effort.

Ongoing legislative efforts aside, it is important for each of us recognize the role we have in helping to keep children safe. The most basic role is a simple one: If you suspect child abuse, report it!

Call ChildLine, the state’s child abuse hotline, at 1-800-932-0313. It's available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and reports can be made anonymously.

Put it in your phone directory and pass it along to friends, family and colleagues who might not have it in theirs. You never know when you might need it.

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Work Remains On New Child Protection Laws

Several new child protection laws were enacted at the end of 2013, such as measures to expand the definition of child abuse and strengthen investigations. While we must recognize and applaud these advances in child safety, we can’t afford to lose sight of several additional pieces of legislation that haven’t yet made it to the governor’s desk.

Fortunately, some of the remaining reforms took a big step in the right direction today. The Senate Aging and Youth Committee voted out HB 434 (Rep. Maloney, R-Berks) and HB 316 (Rep. Harhart, R-Lehigh) and the House Children and Youth Committee voted out SB 31 (Sen. Fontana, D-Allegheny).

Sen. Fontana and Rep. Maloney are both seeking to repeal “student abuse” language that holds school employees to a different standard than other child caregivers when it comes to committing child abuse. Currently, the legal threshold to commit student abuse is considerably higher than the threshold to commit child abuse. Pennsylvania is the only state with this odd and troublesome difference in standards, and it’s time to get rid of it.

Rep. Harhart is spearheading legislation to create a permanent mechanism for funding Child Advocacy Centers. These centers provide a child-friendly and highly effective approach to the investigation and treatment of child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse. The legislation will promote broader and regional access to these critical services. HB 316 will also provide state funding for mandated reporter training to support proposed expansion of these requirements.

We congratulate Sen. Fontana and Rep. Maloney for helping ensure our children are safe when they attend school, and Rep. Harhart for her efforts to effectively report, investigate and respond to child abuse. We now need our General Assembly to advance these and other remaining child protection bills, such as clarifying and expanding the list of mandated reporters, establishing direct reporting of all child abuse reports, expanded clearance requirements and appropriate employment bans for those individuals who work with children.

Let’s hope today’s action is the momentum we need to carry forward the rest of these important bills.

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The State of Child Welfare in 2014

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children is releasing its 2014 State of Child Welfare report today, and it shows the commonwealth has made some notable progress in recent years to reduce the number of children living in foster care and provide more in-home services - trends we should strive to continue as new child abuse laws take effect.

Among the positive five-year trends highlighted in this year’s report:

  • The number of Pennsylvania children served in foster care declined by 26 percent from 2009 to 2013, while the number of children receiving in-home services increased by 11 percent in the same period. In-home service is a more proactive, less costly alternative to foster placement.
  • Children in foster care are increasingly more likely to be placed in family-type settings, which are preferred to institutional or group home settings known as “congregate care.” In 2009, about 26 percent of foster placements involved congregate care, but the figure declined to less than 20 percent by 2013.
  • Pennsylvania continues to make steady progress in finding permanent homes for foster children, which means fewer children and youth are leaving foster care for circumstances in which they might have no family to depend upon.

Looking ahead, Pennsylvania needs to build on its effective strategies to assure permanent families for more children in foster care, but we also need to continue working to better prevent, detect and respond to child abuse and neglect.

In other words, we must pay attention to both sides of this effort – making sure we do everything possible to deter abuse and neglect, while also doing all we can to help those who, despite our best efforts, fall victim to it.

In 2013, Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly worked together to enact several new laws to better protect children. These measures expanded the definitions of “child abuse” and “perpetrator” and strengthened child abuse investigations through the use of multi-disciplinary investigative teams. Other child protection bills are pending, including measures to repeal a separate standard of “student abuse,” eliminate “chain of command” child abuse reporting in institutions and bolster the use of confidential and secure electronic submission and dissemination of child abuse reports to improve the investigation process.

The work that remains is just as crucial as the achievements we’ve already seen, and we can’t be satisfied with our work until every piece of child protection legislation the General Assembly has been working on reaches the governor’s desk.

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