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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.

‘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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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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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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PA is Making Progress in ‘Kinship Care’

Some promising foster care statistics came out last week from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), which noted a marked rise in the use of “kinship care” in recent years.

Specifically, kinship care placements in the commonwealth’s foster care system rose 24 percent from 2012 to 2014. Of the more than 19,200 children under the court’s supervision last year, about 18 percent – or roughly 1 in 6 – were in kinship care, according to the AOPC.

Kinship care - a practice in which a child in foster care is placed with extended family members or close family friends - is generally better for a child’s well-being than other forms of foster care placement. When birth parents cannot care for a child, relatives can offer an existing relationship and connection that can make an eventual return home easier.

The use of kinship care has helped fuel an increase in the use of family-based settings in general, which are preferable to placing foster youth in group homes or institutions (placements typically referred to as “congregate care”). Our latest “State of Child Welfare” report noted congregate care has been declining in recent years, accounting for about 1 in 6 foster care placements now versus 1 in 4 in 2010. That’s a good sign.

To help further encourage the use of kinship care, the state courts have produced a video that explains how kinship care works and its benefits for children. We encourage you to watch it and share it to help spread the word about the benefits of kinship care.

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Every Kid Needs a Family

There are more than 14,000 Pennsylvania children and youth living in foster care on any given day, and a national report issued today underscores the need for the commonwealth to do more to help these young people find safe, loving and permanent families.

The latest Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® policy report, Every Kid Needs a Family: Giving Children in the Child Welfare System the Best Chance for Success, urges policymakers, child welfare agencies and the courts to work together in exhausting all means to find family-based settings for kids in foster care and remove barriers that would keep kin from being licensed and financially supported as foster parents.

The report is a much-needed reminder that kids placed in foster care do best in family-based environments, and it reinforces many of the findings in PPC’s annual State of Child Welfare reports:

  • Overreliance on group placements – or congregate care - hinders children’s well-being and unnecessarily drains taxpayer resources. Children and youth in group placements often lose their familiar routines from school, activities and their neighborhoods. Group placements also cost seven to 10 times the cost of placing a child with a relative or foster family.
  • Keeping kids connected to immediate or extended family whenever possible is best. When birth parents cannot care for a child, relatives can offer an existing relationship and connection that can make an eventual return home easier. So-called “kinship care” is better for a child’s well-being that group placements.
  • Foster families are the next best option for children when kin are not available. Children report overwhelmingly positive experiences with the foster parents who care for them, but foster parents must be supported with resources and services. Nationally, 40 percent of the families who leave foster parenting do so primarily because of inadequate agency support.

Every Kid Needs a Family recommends how communities can widen the array of services available to help parents and children under stress within their own homes, so that children have a better chance of reuniting with their birth families and retaining bonds important to their development. And it shows ways in which residential treatment – a vital option for the small percentage of young people who cannot safely live in any family during treatment – can help those young people return to families more quickly and prepare them to thrive there.

More information on PPC’s child welfare work can be found at our Porch Light Project website, porchlightproject.org.  

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Keeping A Focus on Foster Care

In Pennsylvania, there are about 14,000 children and youth in foster care on any given day. May is National Foster Care Month, a time to acknowledge those who do so much to help these children and youth find permanent, safe and nurturing homes.

Our recent State of Child Welfare report found that Pennsylvania’s foster care population has begun increasing in recent years, an increase likely fueled at least in part by an increased awareness of child abuse and neglect. As new child protection laws take effect and more children are removed from unsafe or unhealthy environments, the need for foster care is likely to keep growing.

Of course, saving a child from an unsafe or abusive environment is only half the challenge. We also need to do our best to make sure each child ends up in a safe, supportive “forever family.” And that means we must pay close attention to our foster care system to ensure it has the resources needed to adequately and appropriately help every child it serves.

The State of Child Welfare report noted 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.

And to all the foster parents, supportive family members, policymakers, child welfare professionals, volunteers and others who do so much to help children and youth in Pennsylvania’s foster care system, we thank you for your invaluable efforts.

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Preventing Child Abuse Through Home Visiting

With April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, it’s fitting that President Obama signed legislation on April 16 to extend federal funding for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program for two more years.

What does MIECHV have to do with child abuse prevention?

There are sometimes adverse issues in a child’s home - issues like alcohol or drug problems, financial distress, unmet mental health needs and other factors - that can contribute to abuse and neglect. Evidence-based home visitation services (like those funded through MIECHV) have proven to be an effective means of addressing risk factors like these, lessening the risk of child maltreatment.

The federal funding given to Pennsylvania through MIECHV has allowed the commonwealth to provide evidence-based home visiting services to about 2,300 children a year who would not have been served otherwise. The legislation signed by the president this week provides about $400 million in MIECHV funding to the states for each of the next two fiscal years (Pennsylvania received $13.7 million in MIECHV funds in fiscal 2014-15). Without the legislation, MIECHV funding would have ended this year.

We’re pleased to note that every member of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation voted for this important legislation, and they deserve thanks for their support of MIECHV. Many of you also deserve thanks for joining us in signing a letter earlier this year urging Pennsylvania’s federal lawmakers to support MIECHV funding.

Working together, we got it done – and Pennsylvania’s children are better off because of our collective efforts.

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A Few Seconds That Could Save a Child

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, so we’re going to begin the month by asking you to take a few seconds to do one simple thing …

Put this number into your phone contacts: 1-800-932-0313.

It’s a toll-free number for ChildLine, Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline. The line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and reports can be made anonymously.

Once the ChildLine number is in your phone directory, pass the number along to friends, family and colleagues who might not have it in their phones. Remind them that anyone can (and should) report suspected child abuse or neglect.

It’s our collectively responsibility to help keep all children safe from harm.

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