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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.

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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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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