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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.

Better Child Protection Laws And Foster Care Challenges

Our latest State of Child Welfare report, out today, underscores how Pennsylvania’s much-improved child protection laws are leading to an increased use of foster care as more abuse and neglect is reported and more children are removed from unsafe or unhealthy environments.

In fact, the number of children entering foster care in Pennsylvania has exceeded the number exiting foster care for the last two years in a row, reversing a long-term trend of a decline in the overall foster care population.

While it’s laudable that Pennsylvania has made clear progress in better protecting children, the commonwealth now faces the challenge of making sure the children who have been removed from harmful environments have the services and support they need to thrive. Our foster care system is doing a lot of things right, but there’s also room for improvement.

The State of Child Welfare report notes two areas where improvements can be made:

  • Children in foster care who have a court-ordered goal of a permanent living arrangement sometimes never reach that goal. Many age out of the foster care system between ages 18 and 21 without ever finding a permanent family upon which they can rely. Looking ahead, Pennsylvania needs to strengthen its efforts to ensure foster care is a pathway to finding a “forever family” for every child.
  • State policymakers should examine ways to better provide educational stability to children and youth in foster care, who often face school challenges due to foster care placements. Education interruptions and school changes make it hard for many of these children to succeed academically.

Saving a child from an unsafe or abusive environment is only half the battle. Looking ahead, we also need to do our best to make sure that child ends up in a safe, loving and permanent family and has the support needed to succeed in school and life.

The 2015 State of Child Welfare report, along with county-level child welfare statistics, can be found at porchlightproject.org.

 

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Working Toward a Forever Family for Every Child

When Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children launched our public policy work in child welfare, we decided to name the initiative The Porch Light Project: Forever Family for Every Child.

The vision behind the name is to ensure every child in foster care becomes connected to a permanent family - an outcome driven by a mission of advancing improved public policy. A home where a welcoming porch light is always left on symbolizes a place of belonging and a family that provides support for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, there are many children and youth in foster care today who are not connected to a permanent family. We know foster care is not a good substitute for family, and while it’s necessary under certain circumstances, it should always be temporary. We also know for many youth in foster care, their experience of being parented by public and private agencies has not been temporary, and research shows the negative outcomes many of them will experience if they “age out” of foster care without a family upon which they can rely.

So what can be done? For starters we need the entire child welfare system to never give up on its work to ensure kids “stay home, go home or find a home.”

Every child and youth in foster care has a court-ordered goal or outcome that the child welfare agency is responsible for working toward. Typically, the goal is for children in foster care to “go home.” But sometimes this can’t happen and an alternative goal is established. A challenge for too many youth in foster care is that sometimes they have a court-ordered goal that doesn’t help them “find a home.” This goal of “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement” (APPLA) is considered the least desirable court-ordered goal, and 80 percent of children and youth who have this goal when they leave foster care will not have been connected to a family.

Last year, the federal government decided to greatly restrict the ability of states to use APPLA. Now Pennsylvania must decide how it wants to implement this federal requirement, which gives the commonwealth a prime opportunity to advance the vision of a forever family for every child.

We’ll explore this opportunity in more depth on March 31, when we issue our latest State of Child Welfare report.

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Child Protection Changes Are Worth It

The House Children and Youth Committee held an informational hearing today to discuss the implementation of Pennsylvania’s new Child Protective Services Law. Not surprisingly, as with any big change in law, policymakers are now hearing some concerns over the impact of certain requirements - concerns being voiced primarily by organizations with employees or volunteers who are responsible for the welfare of or have direct contact with children.

Under Pennsylvania’s new child protection laws, certain volunteers must now submit child abuse and criminal background clearances every three years, including an FBI clearance if the volunteer lived outside the commonwealth within the past 10 years. The routine submission of clearances now also applies to certain employees in child-serving fields, such as teachers. A bottom line concern about these clearances is cost. Combined, the three types of clearances cost approximately $47.50. But if a volunteer has been living in Pennsylvania, the clearances cost only about $20.

Some argue these costs will result in fewer individuals volunteering. The Department of Human Services has reviewed volunteer clearance data over the last few years to investigate concerns about a dwindling number of volunteers. The department found that in 2013 - before the new requirements took effect - more than 60,000 volunteer clearances were processed. And there has been a steady increase in the number of volunteer clearances being processed over time. This is because many volunteer organizations already instituted their own policies requiring clearance checks. This seems to indicate the new state requirements are merely catching up to existing policies organizations already have to ensure the safety of our children.

Changes often bring challenges, but changes that better protect Pennsylvania’s nearly 2.8 million children from abuse are well worth the relatively minor challenges some have raised.

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The Value of Child Abuse Clearances

There has been some recent pushback about Pennsylvania’s new Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) clearance requirements, particularly by volunteer organizations and universities. Concerns have arisen over the costs of submitting these clearances, but shouldn’t our primary concern be the costs of not submitting them?

Every child who experiences abuse could suffer from the aftermath for a lifetime, and these background checks serve to protect Pennsylvania’s nearly 2.8 million children. And let’s not forget that large public, private and faith-based institutions have faced great costs as recent abuse scandals have ripped through their communities – costs that far outweigh a $10 child abuse clearance or even the $27.50 to complete an FBI background check.

With our children at the forefront of their minds, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly intentionally broadened clearance requirements by both requiring additional individuals to submit them and to do so on a routine basis. There have been far too many instances of someone committing child abuse in one jurisdiction, then later found to be working or volunteering with kids somewhere else.

These common-sense clearance requirements are in direct response to these scenarios and will help put a stop to them.  

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Behind the Numbers on Child Abuse Reports

At the start of 2015, a number of new child protection requirements took effect in Pennsylvania, including an expansion of how child abuse is defined and who is required to report it. You may have heard some counties across the commonwealth are beginning to see sharp increases in reporting. For instance, as of Jan. 16, the Children's Bureau in Westmoreland County had 29 percent more reports than in the entire month of January 2014. This has spurred the county to increase its staff complement by 10 percent to handle the increased workload. Cumberland County is another example where additional staff are being added to the ranks.

While there may be a temporary surge in reporting due to increased awareness, time will tell if the new Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) has grown child welfare workloads indefinitely. Clearly, the new requirements broaden the scope of reports to which local child welfare agencies must respond. Previously, law enforcement would have handled some of these reports independently because the alleged perpetrator might not have fallen under the CPSL definition of a potential perpetrator of child abuse, even though they may have committed a crime against a child.

There also are other drivers for increased reporting, such as how the new CPSL lowers the threshold on what rises to the level of child abuse and the expansion of individuals required to report suspected abuse.

The ripple effect of the new CPSL must be monitored closely by policymakers, media and key stakeholders. Increased reporting means the child welfare system must increase its response – this could require additional staffing, child welfare services, court interaction, use of foster care, etc. This chain reaction has implications related to cost, but it also enables greater hope our children will be safer.

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New Year Brings New Child Protection Laws

On Dec. 31, 10 pieces of child protection legislation that were signed into law earlier this year will formally take effect. These pending changes to Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law will strengthen the legal language regarding child abuse, along with the legal requirements for reporting it, to better protect children.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) has established a website for the public to access information on the new law. The site - www.KeepKidsSafe.pa.gov - provides information on who is considered a mandatory reporter, child abuse clearance requirements, information on training and much more.

Another important resource developed by DHS pertains to state Child Abuse History Clearances. On Dec. 31, these clearance requests can be submitted and paid for online through a self-service portal, www.compass.state.pa.us/cwis. Submitting an application online allows individual applicants to receive their results through an automated system that will notify the applicant once their results have been processed. Applicants will be able to view and print their results online. The portal also streamlines clearance checks by offering the ability for organizations to create business accounts to prepay for child abuse clearances and have online access to the results.

Whether you are a new mandatory reporter or need child abuse and criminal background clearances, we encourage you to visit www.KeepKidsSafe.pa.gov to learn more about what you can do to protect children from abuse and neglect.

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Preventing Child Abuse Through Evidence-Based Home Visiting

More than 20 new laws were enacted in Pennsylvania in 2013-14 as part of an unprecedented legislative effort to improve the reporting and investigation of child abuse and neglect.

Overhauling Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law was in response to a call to action issued by the Task Force on Child Protection. But the task force’s recommendations were not limited to the identification of child abuse and neglect. They also sought to reduce instances of child abuse and neglect through stronger investment in evidence-based prevention strategies.

Fortunately, the General Assembly responded to the task force’s call for prevention when the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution requiring the Joint State Government Commission (JSGC) to study existing evidence-based child abuse prevention programs and determine how to better financially incentivize and integrate such strategies into commonwealth policy.

The recently released JSGC report summarizes various evidence-based child abuse prevention programs, highlighting research on their impact and providing a series of recommendations to encourage their use. Evidence-based home visitation services are discussed throughout the report as an important primary and secondary means of preventing child abuse and neglect, because research demonstrates the ability of these services to address a host of risk factors associated with child maltreatment.

One critically important way all of us can help ensure Pennsylvania invests in these services is to speak to our members of Congress about the need to extend funding for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program. Federal funding under this program is allowing Pennsylvania to provide evidence-based home visiting services to an additional 2,300 children across the commonwealth. The program expires in March of 2015. Help us encourage members of Congress to extend funding for MIECHV at its current level.

For further information on the impact of MIECHV in Pennsylvania, see PPC’s fact sheet on evidence-based home visiting.

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Is There Room At Your Table?

In observance of National Adoption Month, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children Development Director Audrey Eisenberg shares her perspective on making the needs of children in foster care a priority …

The other night, my caseworker called to cancel our final pre-adoption home visit because she was trying to find an emergency placement for four siblings – a process she anticipated could take the remainder of her evening.

My heart dropped. I wanted to help them ... ALL of them, whatever their situation was, however old, whatever color they are. I wanted to give them warm jammies and a hug and a safe bed. And I wanted to find a way to keep them together, these four kids who I can only assume have helped each other through some pretty tough situations in their short lives so far.

No sooner had I uttered the question, “Can we take them?” to my husband, than I knew the answer; it was preposterous to even ask. We have five beautiful children, four of whom have joined our family through foster care and adoption. They are ages 10, 6, 4, 4, and 2 ½. We love them completely (and yes, they are “normal children” who occasionally drive us completely crazy). Our commitment to raising them well – meeting their needs, encouraging their interests, teaching them to love and respect others – means that now is not the right time for our family to help these four siblings who need to find a home.

But what about you? Is there room at your table? As you gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving, can you acknowledge the heart-tug you feel when you’re reminded that there are some children who don’t have a mom and dad they can rely on to provide the care and support they deserve? And can you take a moment to consider – really consider – whether that tug may mean it’s your family’s turn to help?

Foster care is not for everyone: The process of becoming a licensed foster family requires time and patience; relationships with biological families can be challenging; decisions about a child’s permanency can take years to establish; foster children’s life experiences and needs may test your limits and understanding. And not every foster child will call your family her “forever home.”

Still, last year more than 20,000 U.S. children “aged out” of the foster care system without being adopted, without the promise of a family who would love and support them into adulthood. There are currently more than 102,000 waiting to be adopted nationwide, including more than 1,900 children awaiting adoption in Pennsylvania.

Each one of these children deserves a place at a family Thanksgiving table.

This year, as you pass the mashed potatoes and look forward to the pumpkin pie, take count of your blessings. Can you add another plate or two (or four!?) at the table by this time next year?

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Lifting Children Out of Poverty Requires Multi-faceted Approach

More than 11.6 million of America’s children under age 5 - including 374,000 in Pennsylvania alone - are growing up in low-income families, according to a report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT project.

The report, “Creating Opportunities for Families: A Two-Generation Approach,” suggests that if we want these children to have a fair chance for success, we need a public policy vision that recognizes kids succeed when we help their families succeed. And we need to break down the barriers that can result in programs for families being seen as working separately from programs for kids.

In short, we need a coordinated approach that gives kids a solid start with quality early education and provides parents with the skills and tools to help them support their families.

In Pennsylvania, evidence-based home visiting programs - such as those funded under the federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program – offer a solid example of how critical family support and early childhood education strategies can work together. These services use nurses and other trained professionals to visit families with infants and toddlers to provide parent education and support, with the goal of promoting children’s health, well-being, learning and development, all while recognizing parents are children’s first teachers. Home visiting services also seek to support parents by getting them connected to community-based services, such as high-quality child care and job training.

Congress has supported federal home visiting funding in the past, and the program – set to expire in March 2015 - will soon be up for reauthorization. PPC is hopeful Congress will continue supporting MIECHV so it can continue offering families the critical services that can help end multi-generational poverty and help more children and families succeed.

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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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