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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.

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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Former Foster Youth Need Help, Not Hindrances

Under the Affordable Care Act, 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 ensures these young people have the same access to health insurance coverage as young adults who can stay on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26.

But this critical safeguard for foster youth is now being threatened. Pennsylvania is asking the federal government to grant a waiver that would create additional requirements former foster youth would need to meet in order to receive Medicaid coverage – coverage that was intended to be guaranteed for this extremely vulnerable population. 

Pennsylvania’s waiver request would require foster youth to meet certain work requirements at age 21 unless otherwise exempt and, beginning in 2016, they would need to begin paying monthly premiums if their income is above 100 percent of poverty.

Research demonstrates the many challenges already facing youth who “age out” of foster care, including the greater likelihood of homelessness, lack of employment and absence of health coverage. The provision in the ACA allowing former foster youth to remain on Medicaid was intended to remove barriers for foster youth – not create more of them.

Former foster youth need your help.

In the coming days, Pennsylvania’s waiver request will be under review by the federal government. You can weigh in on the waiver by signing on to this letter asking the federal government to deny Pennsylvania’s request to set up a needless barrier for former foster youth.

These young people deserve our help, not a needless hindrance to their success.

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A Look at Child Welfare Funding in the Governor’s Budget

Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed increasing state funding for county child welfare services by about $28.4 million more in fiscal 2014-15 – an increase that can help counties boost staffing and services to deal with an increase in child abuse reporting.

The increase in child abuse reports appears to stem in part from increased public awareness of abuse – an awareness likely fueled by high-profile sexual abuse scandals that continue to make headlines. As Pennsylvania begins implementing new child protection measures, we might see even more impact on service, staffing and costs in the child welfare system.

The governor’s proposal also commits about $5 million in state funds to support the development of the state’s child welfare information system and $2 million for child advocacy centers, or CACs. The latter could provide an opportunity to expand the number of CACs, which provide critical investigation and treatment services.

Another significant budget change that could impact child welfare is the reduction in federal financial participation (FFP) that will begin Oct. 1, 2014, when Pennsylvania’s Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) decreases. (State percentages are adjusted annually and the complex methodology for calculating FMAP is based on per-capita income level within a state.) In simple terms, the more a state can shoulder its own costs through taxation, the less the federal government chips in.

The lowest FMAP rate a state can receive is 50 percent and the highest is 83 percent. Pennsylvania is one of 17 states that will see a decline in its FMAP beginning Oct. 1 - dropping from 53.52 percent to 51.82 percent - and our FMAP reduction is the largest drop in dollars any state will see. This means for every state dollar Pennsylvania commits to a medical assistance eligible expense after Oct. 1, we will get a federal match of about $1.07 instead of the current $1.15. These pennies on the dollar add up to more than $300 million across the state budget in the coming fiscal year.

So how does this FMAP decline impact child welfare? The federal reimbursement for some of Pennsylvania’s foster care expenses is linked to FMAP, so a lower FMAP percentage means we get fewer dollars for foster care. The Department of Public Welfare estimates the FMAP reduction will result in about $5 million less in federal funding for child welfare.

As the budget negotiation season progresses, we’ll be working to keep you informed on how the fiscal 2014-15 budget evolves.

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Former Foster Youths Don’t Need Another Obstacle

In case you missed it, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children submitted comments to the Corbett administration earlier this month regarding the governor’s “Healthy Pennsylvania” proposal. One of those comments asks the governor to abandon an idea that we believe could be detrimental to young adults formerly in foster care.

A lesser known provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that took effect on Jan. 1 requires states to provide Medicaid coverage until age 26 for young adults who have aged out of foster care. The provision applies not only to those aging out of foster care in 2014 and beyond, but also former foster youth who have aged out since 2006, as long as they haven’t yet reached age 26 and were receiving Medicaid when they aged out.

The “Healthy Pennsylvania” proposal asks the federal government for permission to require these young adults to engage in job searches and pay monthly premiums in order to receive Medicaid.

PPC opposes this proposal. Here’s why: The ACA extended Medicaid coverage to these young adults because it recognized they often face difficult obstacles transitioning to adulthood, including challenges related to physical and behavioral health. Requiring 12 job searches per month and the payment of monthly premiums will only add barriers to the lives of individuals who have faced far too many hurdles in life already.

There are about 13,300 children currently in Pennsylvania’s foster care system who, if they remain in foster care until they age out, would qualify for Medicaid until age 26. In addition, there are about 11,000 children who previously aged out of foster care and have not yet turned 26 who would be eligible for Medicaid.

These young people deserve our help, not more hurdles.

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Behind Every Crisis Is An Opportunity

The Sandusky scandal at Penn State challenged us as a nation to think about our individual and collective responsibilities to protect children from harm. For Pennsylvania, the high-profile sex abuse case created an opportunity that the legislature seized in the 2013-14 session – to revisit child protection laws created more than a half century ago. 

For Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, the overhaul of our child protection laws initially felt like a diversion from our advocacy agenda for 2013-14, which was primarily focused on foster care permanency and well-being issues. However, we quickly recognized the political opportunity to improve our child protection laws and decided to jump in feet first to help ensure any new laws would better protect kids and not undue any positive aspects of our system.

The most important developments in overhauling our laws were:

Clarifying what child abuse is and who commits it - How our state defined child abuse and perpetrators made our laws difficult to apply in practice. Some strongly believed our law was jeopardizing the safety of children because it was hindering access to protective services.

Resisting the temptation to legislate universal mandatory reporting - One of the major subjects of debate was whether Pennsylvania should move toward a universal mandatory reporting system in which every adult is bound by law to report suspected child abuse. With help from the State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center (SPARC) we learned that universal mandatory reporting does not result in increased substantiated reports of abuse, and in fact, some states with mandatory reporting laws were considering scaling them back to better ensure mandated reporters are trained and held accountable.

Expanding the list of mandated reporters - Pennsylvania needed to consider whether our current statute named all of the necessary individuals representing all the right institutions as mandated reporters. In the end, we increased responsibility for reporting to ensure those with the most contact with children could play a role in sounding an alarm when needed.

Changing problematic “chain of command” reporting - Our new state law requires those who suspect abuse and neglect to report directly to the state’s ChildLine hotline as well as to their administrators, ensuring kids don’t fall through the cracks because those at the top failed to follow through.

Requiring employer sponsored training and education - By placing training and education requirements on employers related to mandatory reporting, we hope to spread responsibility for awareness across the community, not only in the hands of the child protection system.

Simply put, the Sandusky scandal provided an opportunity to address some longstanding flaws with our child protection system. With new laws on the books, we can now turn our focus toward ensuring effective implementation and advancing other public policy reforms that will help ensure children and families involved with the child welfare system receive the services and supports they need to thrive.

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10 New Child Protection Laws With More On The Way

In case you missed it, Gov. Tom Corbett this week signed into law 10 measures that will better protect Pennsylvania’s children from abuse and neglect.

They include a measure that redefines “child abuse” (to lower the threshold of what constitutes abuse) and a measure that broadens the definition of a child abuse “perpetrator” to better enable county agencies to appropriately respond to child abuse. Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children was proud to be on hand when the governor hosted a signing ceremony for these two bills, and we thank state officials for making child protection a priority in 2013.

It was a little over a year ago that the state’s Task Force on Child Protection - created in the wake of the Sandusky child abuse scandal - released its recommendations on how to improve the commonwealth’s child protection laws. Legislators quickly got to work reviewing the task force’s proposals and engaging stakeholders to get their feedback, leading to the batch of bills that landed on the governor’s desk in recent days.

More child protection bills are expected to reach the governor’s desk in 2014, including measures to address mandated reporting, the elimination of “chain of command” child abuse reporting in institutions, the repeal of student abuse and improvements to Pennsylvania’s child abuse reporting system that will bring it into the 21st century by enabling the use of confidential and secure electronic submission and dissemination of child abuse reports, which also will support better investigation outcomes.

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