Supreme Court Starts Initiative to Help Kids in Foster Care

Amaris Elliott-Engel

As Kevin Campbell travels around the country, he learns about the worst child abuse cases.

When Campbell, one of the nation’s leading experts on strategies to build support systems for kids infoster care, came to Pennsylvania recently, the fate of Danieal Kelly was on his mind.

Kids like Danieal, the 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who starved to death in her mother’s West Philadelphia home in 2006, are kept safe when they’re not isolated from a community that cares about them, Campbell said in an interview during a break in a training session sponsored by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He has led trainings in the western, central and eastern parts of the state.

“The more people care about that kid and are looking in on that kid, the safer they are,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s audience Sept. 5 was made up of social workers, judges and other child welfare officials from 15 counties who will be the first to implement the Supreme Court’s permanency practice initiative that aims to keep children safe and stable by involving their extended family networks in planning their care.

The initiative aims to reduce the number of children in foster care and reduce the cost of keeping children in care.

Supreme Court Justice Max Baer is leading the statewide effort to improve outcomes in the commonwealth’s dependency courts for abused and neglected children. Chester and Montgomery counties, as well as 13 others, are the first counties to join the permanency practice full force. Other counties, including Philadelphia, are also undertaking a revolution in shifting the power from judges and caseworkers to families to decide the future of children in foster care. The state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families is partnering with the court on the initiative.

Sandy Moore, the administrator of the Supreme Court’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts, said some of the practices to promote stability in the lives of kids were identified last year during the statewide children’s roundtable of children’s welfare stakeholders.

The children’s roundtable dialogue led to the Supreme Court’s permanency practice initiatives: reaching out to a wide network of family members to participate in family group decision-making and training social workers from the public sector and the private sector to help families be more self-sufficient, Moore said.

Almost a decade ago, Campbell began developing the strategy of family finding, which helps social workers find relatives and other loved ones who will commit to supporting children in foster care. Family finding feeds into family group decision-making. Family members hold a conference with a mediator to plan the best care for a child. The plan is subject to the approval of the child’s caseworker and the family court judge.

Campbell argues that people need to know where they come from and children in foster care are traumatized and isolated when they are separated from all of their relatives and their roots.

“Family finding finds the families, finds a larger net,” Moore said. “Family group decision-making allows everyone who cares about a child to come together and to create a plan for how they’re going to help protect a child and care for a child. It’s a very powerful process. It’s a process that really allows people closest to a child, who understand that child best, to come up with a plan that is then reviewed.”

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Anders ordered the first court-involved family group decision-making conference in the First Judicial District.

Anders directed a family to hold a conference after a contentious hearing in a case involving a single mother with five children. After the family convened and agreed upon what services should be in place for the children, the family came back into court 10 days later with smiles on their faces, Anders said. The conference empowered the family and focused on the strengths of the family, the judge added.

Families are more vested in the plans they create than the plans social workers create, and families are able to come up with the safest placement plans because families know things about their relatives that they might not share with unfamiliar social workers, Moore said.

The initiative also asks county courts to conduct three-month reviews, instead of sixmonth reviews, for every child in foster care. The initiative also asks the courts to enter their dependency cases into the state’s dependency case management system.

Most of Pennsylvania’s counties have already started family group decision-making, but Campbell’s family finding model will make their family decision-making conferences more successful, Moore said.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, administrative judge of the family division, said he is working with Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose on family group decision-making.

The beauty of the “paradigm shift” to family decision-making is family members can be defined to include extended family, close friends, neighbors or anyone with a desire to maintain a family unit, Dougherty said.

“I believe if Philadelphia can implement this practice it will have national recognition,” Dougherty said. “It will have a ripple effect so children across the country can have permanency.”

Laurie O’Connor, director of the Montgomery County Office of Children & Youth, said the practice of maintaining connections between children and their communities assures “the rights of our children and families are best represented when there needs to be intervention by the court.”

Keith Hayes, director of Chester County Department of Children, Youth & Families, said there is some resistance to implementing these practices because “it puts decision making back on the families, not in the hands of professionals, not in the hands of a large bureaucratic system.”

But he said recent developments in the human services field have shattered the myth that caseworkers have all the expertise and families don’t.

“We are determined in Chester County to change the way we do the business in the next few years. We’re adamant,” Hayes said.

Campbell, who has consulted with child welfare systems in 48 states as well as other countries’ systems, has heard all too often the social services myth that children in foster care don’t have family.

But Campbell has learned that while three to eight relatives might be identified in a child welfare record, there might be 100 to 300 living relatives who could provide stability in that child’s life.

During a family finding project Campbell conducted in Cook County, Ill., Campbell said he worked with some of the “loneliest kids” &mdash teenagers who had been in care on average for 14 years, and some who had tried to commit suicide. These were the kids Campbell feared the most for if family finding failed to work for them.

“Who came here to disappoint a disappointed child, who wants to abandon an abandoned child?” he asked.

But when family finding was conducted for these teenagers, the relationships first identified by a social worker endured, grew and evolved without the support of a social worker, Campbell said.

The “loneliest kids” said family finding should be done for every child in foster care, Campbell said.

15 Counties Join Courts Initiative to Improve lives of Dependent Children

HARRISBURG — As part of a statewide initiative to improve the lives of dependent children, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will hold three training sessions featuring Kevin Campbell — a nationally known youth permanency expert and creator of Family Finding, a strategy aimed at finding lost or forgotten individuals willing to provide lifelong support for abused and neglected children.

State Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a former administrative judge of family court in Allegheny County who is guiding these efforts on behalf of the Supreme Court, said the training is part of the court’s Permanency Practice Initiative.

“With enhanced judicial oversight and strength-based, family-led practices, our overriding goals are safely to keep children in their homes, return others to their homes, and when staying or returning home is not possible, quickly to find the best alternative permanent home for every child,” Justice Baer said.

More than 300 judges, state, county and private sector children and youth professionals from 15 counties, volunteering to be part of the initiative’s first phase, will be attending training sessions scheduled for:

  • Sept. 3; at the Cranberry Twp. Highland Golf Course, 5601 Freshcorn Rd, Cranberry
  • Sept. 4; at the Administrative Center, 3rd Floor, 28 East Market St., York
  • Sept. 5; at the OIM Southeast Training Ctr., 123 Boro Line Rd, King of Prussia.

The training sessions will run from 9am to 4pm. Your coverage is invited.

The initiative focuses on three practice areas: Family Finding, Family Group Decision Making and Family Development Credentialing.

Family Finding provides professionals with the tools they need to help find relatives and others committed to a child achieving permanency for every child faster and more efficiently.

Pennsylvania Family Group Decision-Making process is designed to join the wider family group, including relatives, friends, community members, and others, in collectively making decisions to resolve an identified family concern.

Family Development Credentialing is designed to be an interagency training for staff from all public, private and non-profit service systems. The program teaches the skills to help front line workers become more effective in assisting individuals and families in taking care of themselves and becoming self-sufficient.

Additional expected outcomes of the initiative are to:

  • Reduce the number of children adjudicated as dependents and in court-ordered placement
  • Reduce the time children spend in the foster care system
  • Reduce the number of children who re-enter care
  • Reduce the dependency court caseload
  • Reduce the cost of children in care
  • Reduce the need for residential and institutional placements, and
  • Increase child placement stability.

The 15 counties (see attached) in the first phase of this initiative will be enhancing child services and practices, including the implementation of Family Finding, and three-month reviews for every child in the foster care system. Typically court review hearings are held every six months.

In addition, if the counties are not already doing so, they will be actively entering all dependency cases into the state’s computerized Common Pleas Case Management System Dependency Module, designed to track more than 30 performance measures recommended by the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court, the National Center for State Courts and the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. The detailed computerized tracking of dependency cases promises to provide vital statistics for the court’s efforts to help children and families.

Other counties will be joining this initiative in 2009, with an expectation that all counties in Pennsylvania will move to this type of Permanency Practice.

The Supreme Court’s efforts are led by Sandy Moore, Administrator of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ Office of Children & Families in the Court (OCFC), in close partnership with the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth & Families. Additional support and guidance for the initiative is provided by The Pennsylvania Family Group Decision Making Leadership Team, the Statewide Adoption Permanency Network, the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania, and the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and Child Welfare Training Program.

The OCFC, created in October 2006 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, is funded with federal grants from the Court Improvement Project run by the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to the Permanency Practice Initiative a series of rules changes designed to speed the appellate process for children living in unstable or impermanent homes has been proposed earlier this month by the Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee of the Supreme Court.

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Editors Note: State Supreme Court Justice Max Baer and Sandy Moore, Administrator of the Office of Children & Families in the Courts, will be attending the training session on Sept. 3, and will be available for comment by phone on all three training-session days.