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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.

National Adoption Month 2016: We Never Outgrow the Need for Family

Each November, the nation comes together to celebrate National Adoption Month, an initiative of the Children’s Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Information Gateway and Adopt U.S. Kids. The goal of National Adoption Month is to increase national awareness and bring attention to the need for permanent families for children and youth in the U.S. foster care system. On September 30, 2015, over 111,000 children were waiting to be adopted across the nation, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).

This year, the initiative focuses on older youth adoptions, with a theme that reflects these youths' desire to be involved in conversations and decisions regarding their future: We Never Outgrow the Need for Family- Just Ask Us. To help potential adoptive parents explore the decision to adopt an older youth, engage in conversations with older youth about adoption, and build lifelong relationships with the youth in their care, the National Adoption Month website features several resources, such as tip sheets, fact sheets, videos and podcasts.

Of all Pennsylvania children and youth served in foster care in 2015, 3,962 had a permanency goal of adoption; 525 of these youth were older than 12. Since we know youth who age out of the foster care system without achieving permanency risk experiencing several poor outcomes in adulthood, securing lifelong, caring adult connections is a vital part of ensuring their future well-being.

To learn more about becoming a permanent resource for an older youth in foster care in Pennsylvania, visit adoptpakids.org. And remember, you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.

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Gov. Signs Bill Bringing PA into Compliance with Federal Child Protection Law

Act 115 was signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf today, bringing the state of Pennsylvania into compliance with the most recent changes to the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA).

CAPTA, originally enacted in 1974 and most recently re-authorized in 2010, is the nation’s key federal legislation regarding child abuse and neglect. In addition to providing definitions for abuse and neglect, CAPTA provides funding for state child protective services systems. The federal law is authorized through 2016 and is up for re-authorization in the next legislative session.

Introduced by Senator Pat Vance (R), and passed unanimously in both chambers, Act 115 makes necessary changes in state law regarding parents who have committed child sexual abuse, the definition of child abuse, and the treatment of child victims of human trafficking.

Per the new law, grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights will now include instances where a parent has been found by a court to have committed sexual abuse against a child, as well as where a parent is required to register with a sex offender registry. Human trafficking is now included in the definition of child abuse, and further, the law now includes law enforcement officers who are investigating cases of human trafficking as a party to whom information from child abuse reports may be provided. 

Enacting these changes ensures that Pennsylvania is best positioned in its efforts to not only protect children from abuse and neglect, but also to provide justice to victims.

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PA Senate Takes Step Towards School Stability for Foster Youth

One half to three quarters of youth in foster care change schools upon entering care, and one third change schools five or more times, according to research conducted by the National Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. Such educational mobility often results in lower standardized test scores, lower school grades, a greater number of missed school days and higher dropout rates for foster youth as compared to their non-foster care peers.

This week, the Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 1271, one of three bills introduced by Senator Pat Browne (R) in an effort to minimize the educational disruption experienced by children in foster care.

SB 1271 will allow children in foster care to remain enrolled in their same school when entering foster care or experiencing a placement change, unless the court determines that remaining in the same school would be a risk to the child's safety or well-being. This determination will involve both the parents or another education decision-maker, and the child, where appropriate.

Additional legislation, Senate Bills 966 and 1272, would amend the Public School and Human Services Codes to provide guidance to school districts and child welfare agencies in regards to their responsibilities when a child in foster care faces a school change. Companion legislation has also been filed in the House: HB 1808 (Toohil-R), HB 1809 (Toohil-R), and HB 1828 (Lewis-R).

All three bills work together to implement the federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) provisions that seek to ensure school stability for youth in foster care. This week the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) released recommendations from a stakeholder process they convened around the state’s implementation of ESSA. While these recommendations do not speak to the specific requirements for the school stability of foster youth as detailed in ESSA, PDE will be engaging additional stakeholders, including PPC, to focus on their enactment of these provisions through the remainder of 2016 and leading into 2017. 

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Improvements Announced Following Audit of Pennsylvania’s Child Abuse Hotline

Yesterday, the results of the Auditor General’s audit of ChildLine, the state’s child abuse hotline, were released, detailing eight findings and twenty-four recommendations. Both Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Department of Human Services (DHS) Secretary Ted Dallas praised DHS for the improvements implemented following the interim report released in May, and Secretary Dallas promised to continue to implement changes needed to improve policy and practice.

Launched in December 2015, the audit evaluated the effectiveness of DHS’ intake process through ChildLine, and sought to determine whether calls were being processed in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and policies.

The interim report found that nearly 42,000 (43%) calls to ChildLine had been abandoned or neglected in 2015. Further, only 48% of child abuse clearances were processed on time, with an average processing time was 26 days – 12 days over the statutory requirement. The interim report was issued to allow DHS to take immediate corrective action rather than waiting until the audit was finalized.

DHS’ changes since May focused on adding staff, improving staff training, and better utilizing technology to record and monitor all calls and streamline the reporting process. These efforts resulted in 3.3% of unanswered calls in June, which further improved to under 2% in September. DHS also announced 100% of all child abuse clearance requests are now being processed on time, on average within two days.

DePasquale said Wednesday additional improvements are still needed. The most recent findings noted delayed referrals and a lack of an established training program for ChildLine caseworkers during calendar year 2015. Outcomes from child abuse and neglect investigations were also missing or submitted after the 60-day deadline, with 12,153 (10% of all reports requiring an outcome) lacking an investigation outcome. Further, auditors found that nearly 11,000 records of ChildLine reports received in 2015 were missing from their database, 352 of which were due to mis-numbering and the remainder having been deleted by caseworkers.

To learn more about the recent changes to the Child Protective Services Law, child abuse clearances and mandated reporting information, you can visit DHS’ website www.KeepKidsSafe.pa.gov. The ChildLine audit report is available online at: www.PaAuditor.gov.

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A Closer Look at PA's Latest Child Abuse Data

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) recently released its 2015 Annual Child Protective Services Report, which found both the total number of suspected cases of abuse and the number of substantiated reports have increased since 2014.

As PPC has noted in the past, these increases may be the result of the 24 child protection laws passed since 2013 that have increased both public awareness and the responsibilities of mandated reporters.

While the number of total suspected reports increased from 29,273 to 40,590, the rate of substantiated cases decreased from 11.4 to 10.4, potentially signaling a more vigilant Pennsylvania when it comes to child abuse and neglect.

The annual report is mandated by law to include a statistical analysis of the year’s child protective services (CPS) reports and general protective services (GPS) assessments, and seek to offer a high-level overview of the state of child abuse and neglect in the commonwealth. Last year was the first full year in which all CPS and GPS reports and assessments were received and maintained at ChildLine, rather than being processed in two separate databases –  a change designed to streamline the process of identifying perpetrators of child abuse seeking to work or volunteer in positions that require direct contact with children.

Over one million individuals requested child abuse clearances in 2015, and ChildLine identified 1,828 as on file as perpetrators of abuse. Further, 497,285 Pennsylvanians were trained in child abuse recognition and reporting by the three DHS contracted vendors in 2015 alone.

The latest bill designed to improve child protection in the state, Senate Bill 1156, is currently pending in the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee. It would require health care personnel and clergy who are responsible for a child’s welfare or have direct contact with children to obtain background checks, and would extend the time valid GPS reports can be kept in the statewide database.

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Helping Former Foster Youth Stay Healthy

Young adults who have aged out of foster care are at higher risk for many adverse situations, including homelessness, unemployment and lack of access to health care.

The good news is that under the Affordable Care Act, states must ensure continued access to Medicaid and health care services until an “aged out” foster youth reaches age 26. To help these young adults receive health care coverage, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) recently made two significant improvements:

  • The use of a new, one-page form for foster youth to apply for Medicaid and renew coverage. Such a form collects the information necessary to authorize coverage for former foster youth, but omits sometimes burdensome questions that are irrelevant to providing coverage for former foster youth, such as employment status or bank account information. The form is currently available by calling the PA Consumer Service Center at 1-866-550-4355 or visiting a county assistance office.
  • Allowing youth living in Pennsylvania who were in foster care in another state to receive immediate Medicaid coverage for up to 90 days while the state verifies the youth’s prior foster care placement. Previously, these young adults had to wait to get coverage until their out-of-state placement was verified.

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and other advocates pushed for these improvements as part of our work to help ease the challenges for aged out foster youth as they make the difficult transition to adulthood. We know that removing obstacles for this vulnerable population improves their chances for success.

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Former Foster Youth are Working to Improve Foster Care

If you’re looking for ways to improve the foster care system, doesn’t it make sense to hear from former foster youth?

That’s the idea behind a unique internship program run by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). Each year, the CCAI invites former foster youth to be a part of its Foster Youth Internship (FYI) Program® to help raise awareness among federal policymakers about the foster care system. Their work includes issuing policy recommendations that are released at a Congressional briefing and shared with child welfare advocates nationwide.

This year’s report – Powerful Voice: Sharing Our Stories to Reform Child Welfare – includes recommendations from a dozen former foster youth. Some of the recommendations touch on areas in PPC’s child welfare policy work, including addressing barriers to permanency, better aligning foster care funding with desired child and family outcomes, and improving opportunities and outcomes for older youth who are aging out of foster care.

As the report notes: “We have found that when policymakers hear direct experiences of those affected by child welfare policy, they become engaged in this issue and work to bring about legislative improvements in an effort to ensure each child has their right to a family realized.”

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‘Family First’ Moves Forward

As part of our efforts to improve the child welfare system, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children has been working on reducing the use of institution-based foster care in favor of family-based care for Pennsylvania’s children and youth.

The federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which was approved by the U.S. House in June, will help towards this goal. The act makes needed and important reforms to many federal child welfare financing mechanisms to support prevention efforts and reduce congregate care placements for foster youth.

PPC, along with many other organizations across the county, expressed support for the legislation and we thank the members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation (particularly U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly who was an original co-sponsor) for their support of the measure.

Looking ahead, once approved by the U.S. Senate and signed into law, states will quickly be tasked with implementation of the Family First Act. PPC will actively work with the state Department of Human Services to monitor effective implementation, including any potential impact to state and county children and youth budgets.

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A Positive Shift in Foster Care Placements

Every child deserves to grow up in a home where they are a part of a loving and nurturing family. In the unfortunate instance where a child is removed from the home due to abuse or neglect and placed in the foster care system, there are two primary options for placement: a family-based setting or a group home or institution, often referred to as “congregate care.”

Despite the proven benefits of family-based care, about 1 in 6 foster care placements in Pennsylvania last year involved congregate care. While Pennsylvania has made progress in recent years towards greater use of family-based settings, the most recent national data placed Pennsylvania 41st among states in efforts to move way from congregate care.

To learn more about how Pennsylvania can continue to become less reliant on congregate care placements, check out our latest report, Congregate Foster Care in PA.

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A Proactive Approach to Child Safety

A federal commission that spent the past two years reviewing issues related to child abuse and neglect fatalities is calling for a “public health approach to child safety” that puts a stronger emphasis on prevention.

The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) issued a report on March 17 that makes a series of recommendations, including:

  • Calling on states to undertake a five-year retrospective review of child abuse and neglect fatalities to identify family and systemic circumstances that led to fatalities.
  • Having states review their policies on screening reports of abuse and neglect to ensure children most at risk for fatality - those under age 3 - receive the appropriate response and their families are prioritized for services.
  • Holding programs such as Medicaid and home visiting accountable for ensuring their services are focused on reducing abuse and neglect fatalities.
  • Enactment of federal legislation that sets a minimum standard designating which professionals should be mandatory reporters of abuse or neglect.

Dr. David Sanders, the executive vice president of Casey Family Programs and the chair of the commission, said the current network of child abuse services and supports “does not adequately ensure safety for children because much of it is reactionary after a death has occurred.”

“Over the long term,” he said, “we need to dramatically redesign our approach to ensure children and families in crisis receive the supports and interventions they need to address the complex issues impacting families and prevent harm before it occurs. Based on what we learned as a commission, I am convinced that we have the knowledge to reduce the number of children who will die today, tomorrow and in the future.”

The full report is available on the commission’s website.

As we head into April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, we hope Pennsylvania officials will use the commission’s report to consider ways the commonwealth can improve its child welfare system and further strengthen our proactive approach to ending child abuse and neglect.

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