Juvenile Court Services Will Be Bid

Michael P. Buffer, The Citizens’ Voice

Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella is soliciting juvenile court services through a legal ad — something the judiciary didn’t do when obtaining juvenile services from Dr. Frank Vita, a psychologist and brother-in-law of Senior Judge Michael Conahan.

The county has paid Vita more than $850,000 for juvenile probation services since 2004, and his rate is $90 an hour. County Commissioners Maryanne Petrilla and Stephen A. Urban objected by saying the commissioners should have approved a contract with Vita, and they claimed the county’s purchasing policy required an advertised request for the services. The policy requires an advertised request for professional services that cost $7,500 or more.

Professional services are exempt from state-purchasing mandates on bidding and advertising, and Ciavarella has argued the judiciary only has to follow state law and is not bound by requirements and policies from the commissioners.

But Ciavarella did agree to advertise a request for the following juvenile court services: youth development activities program, forensic psychological testing and outreach prevention. Responses are due May 30.

Vita has been paid from the judicial budget line item that funds juvenile placement transfers, and the state has funded 80 percent of those costs through the county Children and Youth Services, an agency controlled by the commissioners.

Last month, the Children and Youth agency advertised a request for psychological counseling services, and the agency got three responses, including one from Vita, County Manager/Chief Clerk Doug Pape said. Vita has not responded to that request previously, but the state Department of Public Welfare is changing how it funds psychological services for children, Pape explained.

The state wants counties to start using the medical assistance program to fund psychological services for eligible children, officials said.


©The Citizens Voice 2008

Giving Kids a Better Chance

Linda Metz

For nearly two months, Washington County has been developing a new system that ultimately would reduce the time abused and neglected children spend in foster homes.

The new automated dependence tracking module is the first of its kind in the nation.

“It’s good for the kids, and it’s good government,” said Washington County Judge Mark Mascara, who took on the job of implementing the new system at the request of state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer.

According to Mascara, the new system uses the Common Pleas Court Management System that allows the court to quickly look at a case and take the needed steps to speed up the process of getting a child into a permanent home.

“State law mandates that we take a look at each case every six months. But six months is a lifetime for a child,” said Mascara.

The judge added that this way, “children are less likely to languish in dependency.”

Mascara said it could possibly cut months off the average time it takes to review a case.

It took cooperation from the staffs at Mascara’s office, and the offices of Clerk of Courts Barbara Gibbs and Children and Youth Services. The team worked with members of the state Office of Children and Families in Courts.

“On any given day in Pennsylvania, there are tens of thousands of dependent children in foster homes or temporary residential settings because they have been abused or neglected,” said Sandy Moore, administrator of the OCFC.

She added, “They can wait, in some cases, for years before being placed in a permanent home. That’s too many children in the court system, and it’s far too long for dependent children to wait to be placed in a permanent home where they have a better chance for successful lives.”

The new system is now being used in Bucks and Northampton county courts. It’s expected to be implemented statewide by year’s end.

Copyright Observer Publishing Co.

States Take Aim at Reducing Number of Children in Foster Care

NGA Center Picks Six States for Policy Academy Dedicated to Improving Outcomes for Vulnerable Children

WASHINGTON — Recognizing that there are too many children in foster care and that their safety and well-being may be improved by other means, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) has selected six states—Arkansas, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Carolina—to participate in a policy academy to safely reduce the number of children in foster care. The academy is being conducted in partnership with Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based foundation committed to safely reducing nationwide the number of children in foster care by 50 percent by 2020.

During the last two decades, the number of children in foster care has nearly doubled. However, there is growing recognition that with appropriate services and supports to the families, many of these children could safely remain at home and avoid the trauma of separation from their home and community. For children who must enter foster care, they are more likely to have positive outcomes when placed in family-like settings and quickly reunited with their family, placed with kin or adopted.

This policy academy offers state teams, made up of representatives from governors’ offices, state child welfare agencies, other relevant state agencies and stakeholders, the opportunity to work with national and state experts to improve outcomes for children and youth who come to the attention of the child welfare system.

“Most children in foster care have been removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse to ensure their own safety and well-being,” said John Thomasian, director of the NGA Center. “This policy academy will help states devise strategies for reducing the number of children in foster care while improving long-term outcomes for vulnerable children.”

During the course of the academy, states will develop a two-year strategic plan to reduce the number of children in foster care while ensuring that safety remains paramount. The plans will focus on reducing the number of children entering care, shortening length of stay for those in care and/or improving permanency outcomes to reduce returns to care, as well as strategies for sustaining effort over time.

By the end of 2008, participating states are expected to:

  • Improve their understanding of the state’s child welfare data trends and what drives those trends;
  • Improve collaboration among mental health, substance abuse, child welfare and other systems;
  • Develop a plan that identifies outcomes the state wants to achieve and strategies for achieving them, specific action steps with timelines for moving forward and a plan for tracking progress and measuring success; and
  • Identify new, increased or redirected funding to support and sustain the state’s work.

For more information, visit www.nga.org/center.


Founded in 1908, the National Governors Association (NGA) is the collective voice of the nation’s governors and one of Washington, D.C.’s most respected public policy organizations. Its members are the governors of the 50 states, three territories and two commonwealths. NGA provides governors and their senior staff members with services that range from representing states on Capitol Hill and before the Administration on key federal issues to developing and implementing innovative solutions to public policy challenges through the NGA Center for Best Practices. For more information, go to www.nga.org.

Improvement Project for Dependency Courts Moves Forward

Amaris Elliott-Engel

The 40-year-old goal of unifying Pennsylvania’s courts has moved forward with a court improvement project under Supreme Court Justice Max Baer’s authority to better the outcomes in the commonwealth’s dependency courts for abused and neglected children.

Since the Constitution of 1968 reorganized the judiciary into the Unified Judicial System, various efforts, some of them unsuccessful, have been undertaken to truly unite the courts of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. But in recent years, Pennsylvania’s Court Improvement Project has been embraced by family court stakeholders in order to change courtroom practices and share information across jurisdictions, according to a six-member panel speaking during the National Forum on Children, Families and the Courts held last week.

Pennsylvania became the last state in the country to accept court improvement federal funding for dependency cases involving neglected and abused children, said Sandra E. Moore, administrator of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts within the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Now that the court improvement project is up and running, participants in the project have embraced the development of a curriculum for judges that allows families involved in dependency cases to direct decision-making in the cases and the development of a unified computer case-management system for all of the state’s dependency courts.

Without unified data collection, it is unclear how many children in the state are in placement and what form those placements are taking, Moore said.

Prior to the project’s institution, each of Pennsylvania’s counties were “67 fiefdoms, 67 sovereign, independent countries,” said Baer, who spent 15 years in Allegheny County’s family division, including five and a half years as the division’s administrative judge. He said he believes that the project is combating the tendency of counties to be insular and unaware of best practices being deployed in other counties.

The panel for the “Order Out of Chaos: Organizing Coherent Change in a County-Based System” session also included Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, administrative judge of Allegheny County’s family division; Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, administrative judge of Philadelphia County’s family division; Indiana County Common Pleas Judge Carol Hanna; and Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Todd A. Hoover.

Moore became administrator of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts in January. The office operates under Baer’s direction. Baer is also the liaison justice for the Court Improvement Project, which operates under the aegis of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts.

Under the project, each county convenes a children’s roundtable of county-level stakeholders in the welfare of children. A smaller number of children’s roundtable members participate in regional leadership roundtables. And an even more select number of leadership roundtable members participate in a state roundtable that makes grassroots-based decisions on the development of a unified child welfare system. All of the panelists at last Thursday’s event are part of the statewide roundtable.

Baer stressed that participation in the roundtable structure is not mandatory for any county.

Hanna said that the project presents an “ambiguous time” because the future of the shape of the state’s dependency courts is unclear. But she said that the roundtable system allows for local control while providing more statewide resources to implement best practices.

Many counties have embraced the goal of “one judge, one family,” or keeping the same judge involved in a family’s juvenile and domestic relations cases. Hanna joked she is “one judge, every family” for her rural county of 88,000. Fifty-five children are placed out of their homes in her county.

Clark noted that Allegheny County is also trying to cross-train its judges to hear different types of family court cases and is undertaking “cultural competency” training for court officials and other staff to deal appropriately with the diverse population moving through Allegheny County’s court system.

Her county’s only concern about a statewide dependency system is interfacing its e-filing system with the state’s case management system. However, Clark said the statewide system will help judges and other court officials understand if courts are doing right by kids.

Funding is also an issue for Allegheny County, so that judicial district is looking toward the private sector for funding, she said. Allegheny County has a population of 1.28 million and has 2,207 children placed out of home and a total of 3,371 active dependency cases.

Hoover said he was thrilled that Baer is pushing the family group decision-making under the court improvement project because he unsuccessfully tried to attract the interest of other dependency judges in the practice before. He has learned that judicial leadership can convert social practices. Dauphin County has a population of 253,000 and 365 children placed out of home.

Dougherty is a supporter of the family-decision making model for dependency court because it takes away power from judges and Department of Human Services and gives power to families.

Dougherty said he is troubled that the majority of children in placement in Philadelphia are black. Of a population of 1.45 million, 6,123 children are in out-of-home placement and 806 are being supervised in their homes. Of the city’s 93 judges, 25 are assigned to family court.

While Philadelphia initially was reluctant about the court improvement project because the city’s family court used to exclusively receive those dollars, Dougherty said the new system has gotten the city’s three stakeholders in the care of children — the city DHS, the city’s school system and family court — to the same table.

The project also has united practitioners from different regions in the state with historic urban-rural, or city rivalry divisions, he said.

“It’s time we put our children before money,” Dougherty said. “It’s time we work to make sure the collective intelligence in our roundtable is listened to and not just heard.”

Baer told the out-of-state attendees in the audience that the project will take “Pennsylvania from a disjointed state … to a state everyone knows about.”

Report Issued on the “State of the Commonwealth’s Courts”

HARRISBURG — Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille today issued a report on the State of the Commonwealth’s Courts for 2008 outlining goals and discussing highlights of the past year.

The report is the third annual overview of Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System issued by the chief justice in behalf of the Supreme Court in the last three years.

In the report, Castille credits former Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy, who retired early this year, for his efforts to improve the Pennsylvania courts through judicial automation, specialized treatment courts, improved judicial education and other programs.

“As Pennsylvania’s new Chief Justice, I intend to continue those programs and to begin other programs in keeping with the Supreme Court’s constant commitment to improve the administration of justice,” Castille writes.

Among the innovations cited in the report is a statewide jury information system through which more potential jurors will be identified for inclusion in county jury pools. The aim is to increase citizen participation and expand diversity on juries. Utilizing data from state executive branch agencies, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) is compiling a statewide master list from which data identifying potential jurors will be provided to each county this fall.

The report also discusses a new educational video on the Pennsylvania court system which is designed for use in jury assembly rooms and by judges or lawyers when speaking in schools or to community groups. The 15-minute video was commissioned by the AOPC and may be viewed through a link at www.courts.state.pa.us.

“A lack of understanding of how our government works and the loss of civics as a component of basic education is potentially the most serious threat we face when we speak of threats to judicial independence,” Castille writes in the report.

Other topics discussed in the State of the Commonwealth’s Courts report include:

  • Problem-solving courts. A decade ago, Philadelphia Municipal Court began its drug court on an experimental basis, the first “problem-solving court” in Pennsylvania. There now are more than 50 such courts in the state, including drug courts, DUI courts and mental health courts.
  • Benchbooks. These volumes are a new professional tool being developed within the court system. The first, released in 2007, was the Public Health Law Benchbook, for use by Pennsylvania judges in the event of a pandemic or other public health emergency. A more recent volume is the Sexual Violence Benchbook, issued this year to assist judges with the complex and changing body of law relating to sex crimes.
  • Automation. Pennsylvania continues to be a national leader in statewide judicial automation. Appellate court opinions and dockets are available online. Criminal case dockets also are available online statewide. In the state’s 546 magisterial district courts, the second generation of technology now is underway, an upgrade that is expected to take five years. These courts were first automated in 1992.

A copy of this year’s State of the Commonwealth’s Courts report may be seen at the Pennsylvania Judiciary’s Web site at: www.court.state.pa.us.