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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.

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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Ensuring Educational Stability for Foster Youth

More than 21,000 children and youth lived in foster care during 2013. When these young people were removed from their families and entered foster care, they became our collective responsibility.

Part of that responsibility includes ensuring their educational success, which requires cooperation between child welfare agencies, courts and schools. Unfortunately, this cooperation doesn’t currently exist for all children in foster care, and the Pennsylvania General Assembly has rightfully decided to examine how such cooperation could be improved.

Earlier this month, the House Children and Youth Committee heard testimony from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and others on the importance of promoting education stability for children in foster care (the focus of the hearing was on two bills, House Bill 569 and House Bill 973). Promoting education stability means, among other things, making sure children who enter foster care continue attending the same school whenever possible or are immediately enrolled in a different school. School districts are a critical partner in ensuring education stability for children living in foster care, but current federal and state requirements to make sure schools do their part fall short.

To learn more about this issue, you can read recent coverage of the House hearing from the Scranton Times-Tribune and Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.

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New Federal Law Includes Foster Care Improvements

Earlier this month, Congress passed The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980), which now awaits President Obama’s signature.

This bi-partisan measure, introduced in June, was a combination of several House and Senate bills intended to address the prevention of domestic child sex trafficking in relation to the child welfare system (H.R. 4058, S.1878), the reauthorization and expansion of the adoption incentive program (H.R. 3205, S. 1876), and improvements to child support (H.R. 1896, S. 1877).

Congress’ action is good news for children and youth in foster care because the act will require states to develop protocols to identify, report and provide services to trafficking victims who were involved with the child welfare system. It also requires states to implement a “reasonable and prudent parent standard” to enable foster parents and other caregivers to make parental decisions regarding health, safety, extracurricular activities, etc. This standard will help ensure children and youth in foster care have greater normalcy in daily activities, and will help streamline decision making versus needing to rely heavily on agency policy and the courts.

In addition to addressing safety and well-being, the new law makes a number of changes to promote permanent families for children and youth. It limits the use of the court-ordered permanency goal of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), which too often translates into long-term foster care. Also, the measure reauthorizes and expands the federal adoption incentives program, which provides additional funding to states that successfully facilitate adoption for children waiting in foster care for a family. The changes to this incentive program should help ensure Pennsylvania will continue to benefit from these incentive funds.

For further information, the Children’s Defense Fund has created a helpful summary of the act.

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A Win for Former Foster Youth

You might have heard the federal government recently approved Pennsylvania’s “Healthy PA” proposal to expand insurance coverage to more low-income adults. What you might not know is the feds rightfully rejected a part of the proposal that would have created a needless barrier to insuring former foster youth.

The original “Healthy PA” proposal would have required former foster youth to meet certain work requirements at age 21 and required some “aged out” foster youth to begin paying monthly Medicaid premiums in 2016. Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children was among those who opposed this idea and asked the feds to reject it. Many of you wrote letters supporting our position.

Under federal law, 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 requirement is meant to ensure these young people have the same access to health insurance coverage as other young adults who are legally allowed to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26.

Research shows the many challenges facing youth who age out of foster care, including the greater likelihood of homelessness, lack of employment and absence of health coverage. Allowing former foster youth to remain on Medicaid without needless fees or unfair requirements helps them overcome obstacles as they move into adulthood.

We’re glad to see the federal government agreed and we’re pleased that so many of you joined us in standing up for former foster youth.

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What's Behind the Numbers on Child Maltreatment?

National data from our partners at the Annie E. Casey KIDS COUNT project shows the proportion of young children experiencing maltreatment has grown by 11 percent between 2004 and 2012. In 2012 alone, nine children out of every 1,000 across the country were confirmed victims of maltreatment. This translates to more than 600,000 children nationwide – 40 percent of whom are under age 5.

So how does Pennsylvania fare in this national perspective? The commonwealth actually has seen a slight decline in the proportion of children under age 5 experiencing maltreatment over the last few years. These young children make up about 18 percent of all children in Pennsylvania who experienced maltreatment in 2012, versus 40 percent nationwide.

This variation likely has something to do with how Pennsylvania has defined child abuse. Our definition has been less stringent than many other states, so what constituted maltreatment in other states might not have been classified as maltreatment here. But with new child protection laws going into effect in Pennsylvania, these data trends may change. Some of the ways Pennsylvania strengthened its definition of child abuse are particularly focused on protecting very young children from abuse. For example, forcefully shaking, slapping or striking a child under the age of one will now constitute child abuse (beginning in December 2014).

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Take Some Time to #MeetTheKids

If you’re familiar with Pennsylvania’s Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network, or SWAN, you might recall a powerful video campaign last year called “Meet the Kids.”

The campaign featured real kids – not actors – who were in foster care. They spoke from the heart about their experiences, hopes and expectations as they awaited their “forever families.” As a result of the campaign, six of the 12 kids featured in the “Meet the Kids” debut are among the many Pennsylvania foster youth who have been matched with permanent families in the past year.

We’re happy to share the news that “Meet the Kids” is back for a second year, and you can hear the unscripted, first-person stories of 12 more young people in the foster care system. We hope you’ll take the time to watch these moving videos on YouTube and share them on social media using the hashtag #MeetTheKids.

And if you’re interested in becoming a foster or adoptive parent (or know someone who is) visit the SWAN website at adoptpakids.org or call 1-800-585-SWAN.

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“Adverse Childhood Experiences” Among PA Kids

A new report came out today examining the prevalence of “adverse childhood experiences” (or ACEs) across the country. It found Pennsylvania is not unlike many other states when it comes to the types of ACEs impacting children.

So what exactly are “adverse childhood experiences” and why do they matter?

They are events in the life of a child that could have caused them trauma, and ultimately impact their long-term health and well-being. Research has linked the number of ACEs children experience to obesity, medical conditions and even life expectancy.

These are the leading ACEs among Pennsylvania children ages 0-17:

ACE

Prevalence (percentage of children)

Economic hardship

25%

Divorce

19%

Mental illness

10%

Violence

10%

Alcohol

10%

Domestic violence

8%

Key findings in the report include:

  • Just under half (46 percent) of children in the U.S. have experienced at least one ACE.
  • Economic hardship is the most common ACE reported nationally and in almost all states, followed by divorce or separation of a parent or guardian.
  • The prevalence of ACEs increases with a child’s age, except for economic hardship, which was reported about equally for children of all ages – a dynamic that reflects high levels of poverty among young families.
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs, exposure to neighborhood violence, and the occurrence of mental illness are among the most commonly reported ACEs in every state.

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