Focus on foster care in Pa. yields falling numbers

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Saunja Mayfield, a clothing specialist with Summit County Children Services, talks about her involvement in the pilot program called Connecting the Dots, during an interview in her office on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, in Akron, Ohio. The program tries to help foster kids who are aging out of the system with real life situations. (AP Photo/Akron Beacon Journal, Ed Suba Jr.)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A six-year effort by the state court system and child welfare agencies has reduced by a third the number of abused or neglected Pennsylvania children in foster care or similar settings, a process that officials say has improved the lives of some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

The number of dependent children placed in temporary care fell from 21,400 in 2006 to 14,100 at the end of March, figures released this week by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts show. The numbers dropped 44 percent in Allegheny County, home to the city of Pittsburgh, and 35 percent in Philadelphia.

“At one level, it’s absurdly simple,” Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, who helped launched the push seven years ago with the help of federal grant money, said this week. “It’s identifying individuals — competent individuals — who will take responsibility for these kids day in and day out, and will help raise these kids.”

Officials say a number of systemic changes are behind the numbers, as more than half the state’s counties are now participating in a program, known as the Permanency Practice Initiative. The strategy involves bringing in a wider number of family members and others who care about the child, helping families make decisions as a group and making reviews by judges more frequent, every three months.

“It’s amazing to see the number of people who come out of communities to work for families when you look for them,” said Sandy Moore, administrator of the court system’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts.

The program also includes training for judges, lawyers and child welfare workers in trauma, grief and family development.

Participation by state and county child welfare agencies has been crucial, said Bev Mackereth, secretary of the state Department of Public Welfare and a former county children and youth services official.

“What we’ve done through the partnership is to teach counties best practice,” Mackereth said. “And best practice is that you don’t use outside care unless you need to, that children don’t belong in congregate living situations unless they absolutely need to. And for most dependent children, they don’t.”

Officials are studying why some children remain in foster care or other temporary living arrangements. Moore said about half are teens, and half of those teens are in group homes and institutions.

“The critical piece for these older kids is to make sure they have healthy adult connections, the folks who are going to be able to support them,” Moore said. “That’s key. They need to know where are they going to be for Thanksgiving, where are they going to be for Christmas.”

Teens can have substance abuse and other behavioral issues that can make judges and caseworkers reluctant to see them sent to live with relatives or in the community, Mackereth said.

“That’s why this is not an easy change because it is a scary thing,” she said.

Court officials estimate the efforts are saving about $117 million annually in state, federal and local costs of foster homes and similar settings.

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