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Focusing on a variety of education, health and youth development issues of importance to children and families in Pennsylvania.

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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The Importance of Developmental Screenings

A child’s first years of life are marked by tremendous growth both physically and mentally, and detecting possible delays in development during these early years is a critical part of ensuring every child gets off to the best possible start and is well prepared to learn and grow up healthy.

About 1 in 10 Pennsylvania children may experience a delay in one or more aspects of development, but Pennsylvania lacks a comprehensive way of monitoring how many children receive developmental screenings that could help detect these delays.

Our latest report – Developmental Screening: An Early Start to Good Health – looks at ways Pennsylvania can better promote the use of developmental screenings, educate families about their importance and ensure children with possible delays in development receive appropriate follow-up assessments, care and interventions.

Increasing the use of developmental screenings not only helps ensure healthy outcomes for our children, it also can bring a strong return on investment. One study found well-designed early childhood interventions can generate a return to society ranging from $1.80 to $17.07 for each dollar spent on the program.

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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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How Pennsylvania's New Budget Impacts Kids

Pennsylvania’s $31.6 billion budget for fiscal 2016-17 includes some notable increases in investments for children, but it also underscores the work that remains in ensuring all children have the necessary resources to succeed. 

“Pennsylvania is losing ground in national rankings for child well-being, and one reason is because we are not being aggressive enough in providing our children and families with the resources needed to ensure success,” Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President and CEO Joan Benso said. “Budgets – even in the most challenging of fiscal times – are about priorities, and we simply have to start prioritizing our children if we want to ensure the commonwealth’s future growth and prosperity.”

Among the highlights of the fiscal 2016-17 spending plan:

  • An additional $200 million for basic education and $20 million for special education, bringing total new education investments over the past two state budgets to $400 million for basic education and $50 million for special education;
  • An additional $30 million for high-quality pre-k programs (equal to last year’s pre-k funding increase);
  • Nearly $200 million in child welfare funding, which will reconcile expenditures from fiscal 2015-16 as well as address some of the needs established by counties for fiscal 2016-17; and
  • $10 million in additional funding for Early Intervention, which provides individualized services and supports to families of children birth to school-age who have developmental delays or disabilities.

While these increases are greatly appreciated (and much needed), they do not go far enough to address the unmet needs of the commonwealth’s children. 

The Campaign for Fair Education Funding (which PPC helped found) has estimated that Pennsylvania needs to increase its basic education investments by $3 billion over the next six to eight years. The $200 million increase this year does not put us on a pace to reach that goal. Similarly, we know investments in high-quality pre-k must grow at a much stronger pace if we hope to reach the more than 120,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds who miss out on pre-k opportunities each year. 

The enacted budget also failed to include an additional $10 million proposed by the governor to fund Pennsylvania’s evidence-based home visiting programs, and it funds child care services at $12 million less than the governor proposed. 

PPC will continue working hard to ensure children have a voice when it comes to Pennsylvania’s budget priorities. 

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Family-based Care Improves Outcomes for Children

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.”

Research shows that children and youth living in family-based foster care have better short-and-long-term outcomes than their peers placed in a congregate care setting. Family-based placements allow for children and youth to benefit from additional close relationships and social supports, higher educational achievement and increases their chance of finding a permanent home.    

To learn more about why family-based care is a better choice for our children and the commonwealth, check out our latest report, Congregate Foster Care in PA.

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Reducing the Use of Congregate Care in PA

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.”

For Pennsylvania foster youth aged 13-20, family strengthening efforts like family finding and family engagement services through the state’s General Protective Services (GPS) system are critical. The use of congregate care for youth in this age range has been especially prevalent in recent years, as more than 40% were placed in a congregate care setting on any given day in 2015. Increasing family strengthening efforts could help facilitate deeper support for birth families from their relatives, and could lead to the greater use of family and kin as foster family homes, ensuring every child has a chance to grow up in a family-based setting regardless of age.

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