First Ever Children’s Roundtable Summit – AOPC Connect 4th issue

Steve Schell

In November officials from more than 50 counties throughout the state participated in Pennsylvania’s first ever Children’s Roundtable Summit hosted by the State Supreme Court in Pittsburgh. Dependency court judges, solicitors and children and youth service professionals
collaborated with national experts at the three day event to develop county-specific plans aimed at helping to help abused and neglected children find safe, permanent homes in a timely manner.

Planting an Acorn to Protect a Child

Zygmont Pines, Court Administrator

The first Pennsylvania Children’s Roundtable Summit, sponsored by the AOPC’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts, was held Nov. 19-21 in Pittsburgh. To highlight how far we have come in a short period of time, I offered the following remarks at the opening session.

This initiative’s history and progress are worth documenting.

State Supreme Court to Host First Annual Children’s Summit

Dependency Court Judges, Children and Youth Officials Collaborate to Help Dependent Children

HARRISBURG, November 18, 2009 – On Thursday, November 19 beginning at 1p.m. in the Pittsburgh Omni William Penn, the State Supreme Court will host Pennsylvania’s First Annual Children’s Roundtable Summit where county dependency court judges, and children and youth service professionals will collaborate with national experts to develop county specific plans to help abused and neglected children. Your coverage is invited.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices J. Michael Eakin and Max Baer, will be present. Chief Justice Castille, Allegheny County President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, and State Court Administrator Zygmont Pines will provide opening remarks for the three-day summit. Sandy Moore, Administrator, Office of Children and Families in the Courts, and Lehigh County Common Pleas Court Judge Brian Johnson will present a Child Dependency System Mission Statement & Guiding Principles document and unveil a Dependency System Logo and new Office of Children and Families in the Court’s (OCFC) website aimed at assisting judges and legal professionals, parents and families, and children with dependency issues.

The new child dependency website can be found at

Officials from more than 50 counties throughout the state will be participating in the summit. They will hear from national experts, including Judge Stephen Rubin, Pima County, Arizona; Judge Charles Pratt, Allen County, Indiana; Judith Silver, PhD, Pediatric Psychologist Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Larry Brown, Casey Family Programs Consultant, and Barbara Needell, PhD, Researcher, University of California at Berkeley. These experts will provide a national perspective of the work being done to help dependent children and families and share strategies used to successfully address issues similar to those facing Pennsylvania’s child dependency system.

Now in Philadelphia, A High School Only For Foster Kids

Mike DeNardo, KYW Newsradio 1060 Philadelphia

A new high school — only for foster children — opened Wednesday in center city Philadelphia.

At the opening assembly of the Arise Academy Charter High School, board president Jill Welsh-Davis asked the 200 students how many high schools they’d attended.

Some said two, three, four. A few, she says, had been to six:

“Every time they’ve changed houses, whether it’s been to a new foster home or to another group home or some other kind of institution within the child welfare system, they’ve had to change schools.”

And that disruption increases the chances a foster student will drop out.

Charles Murray, who is currently working at an approximately 10th grade level at the school, says he doesn’t stand out as a foster teen at the Arise Academy:

“Everybody has practically been through the same thing you’ve been through. So it helps you a lot.”

Students work at their own pace in the school, which operates without formal grade levels.

New Approach Tried in PA Family Courts

Sam Kusic, Indiana Gazette

Speaking from experience, Indiana County Judge Carol Hanna will tell you that family law has always been the table by the restaurant kitchen, sometimes overlooked and not the most alluring place to be.

But she’ll also tell you that family court handles some of the most important cases in the legal system, ones that involve decisions affecting the course of young lives.

So she’s glad to say Pennsylvania’s courts and the relevant social service agencies are overhauling their approach to juvenile dependency cases, cases in which a child is removed from a home and placed elsewhere because of abuse or neglect.

And Indiana County is participating. It and 12 other counties have been included in a second phase of training and reorganization being carried out under the Pennsylvania Permanency Practice Initiative, the name given to the effort.

The goal behind the initiative is simple — to reduce the length of time children removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect spend in foster care, group homes or institutions.

Court officials in charge of the initiative said they recognize that children do not do well when brought up in foster care and that the way dependency cases generally have been handled in the past just doesn’t work.

Sandra Moore, administrator of the state’s Office of Children & Families in the Courts, created specifically for the task at hand, said children who are run through the system are traumatized twice, first by the abuse and neglect they’ve suffered and then again by having been removed from their home and sent to live with strangers.

So with that in mind, she said the ultimate goal is to not only move children quickly out of the system, but into a loving, stable and permanent home.

In the past, when a child was ordered to be removed from a home, six months might go by before the court looked at the case again. And in the meantime, the social service officials working with the child’s family put the focus on determining all the things that were wrong with that family, which wasn’t necessarily effective.

In recent testimony before the state House children and youth committee, Moore explained it thusly:

“Here’s what that looks like in its simplest form: Tonight when you get home, spend the first five minutes of your evening telling your significant other what is wrong with them. Then (spend) the next five minutes giving them your very best thinking as to how they can fix everything that is wrong with them. And then sit back and see how the rest of your evening goes. This approach does not work within our own families and certainly doesn’t work with strangers. Yet it’s the approach taken in most traditional child dependency systems every day.

“A more productive approach includes the people impacted by the decision actually being involved in making the decisions,” she said.

Hanna, Indiana County’s family court judge, said the initiative is a “sea change” in thinking. Instead of trying to figure out what’s wrong with a family working its way through the system, the energy is now being placed on trying to figure out what’s right with a family, using that as base from which to build on.

The initiative involves several components.

The first is the creation of a three-tiered set of “round tables” that bring together judges, children and youth services officials, lawyers and experts to share ideas and discuss issues.

Through the roundtable discussions, the court system drafted a set of guiding principles, priorities for judges and others to keep in mind in making decisions related to child dependency cases. Hanna sat on the committee that wrote the principles.

Aside from that, the initiative includes:

Training for attorneys and social service workers on the front lines of these cases.

A process called “family finding,” in which a computer-assisted search is conducted to help locate distant family members who may be willing to step up and take in a child in need.

A practice called family group decision-making, in which all people with a role in a child’s life, maybe an aunt or a cousin, maybe a neighbor, or maybe someone in the community, are brought together to help develop a course of action.

A system to track dependency cases and outcomes. That, Moore said, will help the courts get a better handle on where cases stand.

In addition, the state is stepping up the time for judicial review of cases, taking it from once every six months to once every three months, which will force judges to keep closer tabs on whether progress is being made in any given dependency case.

No small matter, because it essentially doubles their caseload.

In Indiana County, there are about 60 children in foster care, Hanna said.

The initiative is at the behest of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer. When Baer ran for a seat on the bench, he had promised that if elected, he would set about making improvements to the family court system, something he has experience with.

Before his election, Baer was an administrative judge in Allegheny County family court.

“We are changing the way Pennsylvania’s child dependency system does business by removing institutional barriers and long established practices that once discouraged child welfare agencies and the courts from collaborating,” he said. “This will lead to better outcomes for our children and a brighter future for our communities.”


Copyright 2009 – Indiana Gazette

Children and Youth Services Selected to Participate in Second Phase

Cumberland County — Children and Youth Services was recently selected to participate in the second phase of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Court’s permanency initiative, according to Director Wendy Hoverter.

The county joins 13 other counties in this statewide effort to improve outcomes for children placed in substitute care.

“With enhanced judicial oversight and strength-based, family-led practices, our overriding goals are to keep children safely in their homes, return others to their homes, and when staying or returning home is not possible, quickly find the best alternative permanent home for every child,” state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a former administrative judge of family court in Allegheny County, said in a press release issued by Cumberland County.

Baer is guiding the efforts on behalf of the Supreme Court.

The permanency initiative focuses on three practice areas: family finding, family group decision-making and family development credentials.

The high court expects the initiative will 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 who re-enter care; and reduce the dependency case load on the courts.

Other outcomes may include reducing the cost of children in care, the need for residential and institutional placements and increase child placement stability, according to the release.


Reporter’s Notebook, The Sentinel

Supreme Court Initiative to Improve Lives of Dependent Children Shows Early Progress

HARRISBURG — On Thursday, August 27 at 11:40 am in Room 60, EWing of the State Capitol Building, Sandra Moore, Administrator of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ Office of Children & Families in the Court is scheduled to testify before the State House Committee on Children and Youth regarding the Supreme Court’s statewide initiative to improve the lives of dependent children.

Your coverage is invited. The hearing begins at 10 am.

The Court’s initiative, known as “The Permanency Practice Initiative,” strives to safely:

  • 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.

Also testifying with Sandra Moore will be Dauphin County Common Pleas, Dependency and Orphan’s Court Judge Todd Hoover; Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick, III; Allegheny County Children’s Court Administrator Cindy Stoltz and Chester County Department of Children and Youth and Families Director Keith Hayes.

“The early results of our efforts are very promising,” Moore said. “We are finding additional extended family members who are becoming lifelong connections for the dependent children and counties are already beginning to report reductions in the number of children in foster care.

“By quickly moving dependent children into permanent family settings, we not only significantly improve their chances to succeed; we significantly reduce the cost of institutional care for the counties, thus saving tax dollars for other valuable county children and family services.”

Statewide Foster Care Initiative Sees Results in Montco

Amaris Elliott-Engel, The Legal Intelligencer

Less than a year after the state Supreme Court started an initiative to reduce the number of children in foster care, Montgomery County has reduced the number of children being placed outside of their homes by 20 percent, Laurie O’Connor, director of the Montgomery County Office of Children & Youth, reported.

Montgomery County also has increased the number of children who have a permanent resolution to their dependency cases by returning children to their families or placing children with new families through adoption or permanent custodianship, O’Connor said.

The federal standard for “timely permanency” for children is one year, she said.

“Our outcomes or performance measures have been better this past year than they have ever been before,” O’Connor said. O’Connor’s office handled 1,058 investigations last year and a caseload involving 798 families in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Montgomery County is one of 13 counties undertaking the second phase of the state Supreme Court’s permanency practice initiative.

The drive to improve the outcome in dependency cases was started by Justice Max Baer, the liaison justice for family court issues, in partnership with the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families. The initiative kicked off last September with trainings with a national expert on helping social workers find relatives and other loved ones who will commit to supporting children in foster care.

Fourteen other counties have committed to the first phase of the initiative, and still more counties like Philadelphia County across the state are implementing portions of the plan, said Sandy Moore, the administrator of the Supreme Court’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts.

Moore said statewide data is not yet available on the efficacy of the initiative because counties joining in the dependency case improvement goals only started entering data into the state’s dependency case management system late last year.

For counties to be officially part of the initiative, they must implement three practices: hold conferences with family members and a mediator to help families take over from social workers and judges in making plans for the best care of children subject to dependency proceedings; reach out to a wide network of family members to participate in the family group decision-making; and train social workers from the public sector and the private sector to help families be more self-sufficient, Moore said.

The initiative also asks county courts to conduct three-month reviews, instead of six-month reviews, for every child in foster care.

The biggest problem in the first months of the initiative were the counties that started off too fast and wanted to apply new practices to every child their office had contact with, Moore said. Moore said her office is encouraging counties to implement the practices for a smaller subset of cases in the beginning.

Ultimately, the dependency case campaign is seeking to show that additional judicial oversight through the three-month reviews makes a difference in reducing the time children spend in foster care and the number of children who enter foster care in the first place, Moore said.

“We are almost positive it will,” she said.

Adams County President Judge John D. Kuhn said Adams County had already implemented family group decision-making conferences several years ago. Family group decision-making is now being used by the county’s adult probation office, juvenile probation office and county prison, Kuhn said.

The county’s dependency case stakeholders were interested in expanding the mechanisms that help families create their own solutions and solve their problems “without necessarily having to rely on the government to do that,” said Kuhn of his county, which is another county participating in the second phase of the permanency practice initiative.

Doing three-month case reviews is very resource-intensive, Kuhn said. Yet the judge estimates the county is now doing three-month reviews in 90 to 95 percent of the county’s dependency cases.

Having more frequent reviews by a judge pushes families to stay dedicated to the goals set for them, so they don’t become lax and scramble at the last minute before a six-month review to show they have been working on the goals set for them by the court, Kuhn said.

“More frequent reviews keep everybody on the top of the case and hopefully shorten the time the court and the youth agency need to be involved in the family,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn conducted 284 dependency hearings in 2008. Adams County has 87 children in care, said Kathy McConaghay, administrator of the Adams County Children and Youth Services office.

When 12 employees from McConaghay’s office came back from an encore permanent practice initiative training held just two weeks ago, employees were already able to implement their training on how to find kin for children in foster care who hadn’t been previously known to case workers, McConaghay said.

O’Connor and McConaghay said the implementation of the initiative in their counties wouldn’t have happened without the increased involvement of a family court judge.

In Montgomery County, Common Pleas Judge Paul W. Tressler is spearheading the court’s involvement, O’Connor said. Tressler is on vacation and was not available to comment for this story, according to his chambers.

Funding for the initiative is entirely from federal grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so Pennsylvania’s budget woes haven’t affected the continuance of the initiative, Moore said. Besides the annual trainings held on a regional basis, the initiative also is paying for computers and printers for the counties participating in the initiative so county officials can print orders in the courtroom for families appearing for three-month reviews, Moore said.

One of the three trainings held this year as part of the permanency practice initiative was in Luzerne County. The judicial scandal in Luzerne County started off with juvenile family court cases, not dependency family court cases, Moore noted, but “I was very pleased that Luzerne applied to be a phase-two county.”


Copyright 2009. Incisive Media US Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. The Legal Intelligencer Online
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13 Additional Counties Join 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 in August 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.

More than 160 judges, state, county and private sector children and youth professionals from surrounding areas (see attached) will be attending training sessions scheduled for:

  • August 4 and 5; at the Rustic Lodge, 2199 Oakland Avenue, Indiana, PA
  • August 6 and 7; at the Adams County Department of Emergency Services, 230 Greenamyer Lane, Gettysburg, PA
  • August 11 and 12; at the Ramada Inn, 20 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, PA

Each session will run from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Your coverage is invited.

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

The August training sessions are the second phase of the Supreme Court’s effort to provide Family Finding training throughout the state. Officials in 14 counties attended phase one training sessions held in September 2008.

Sandy Moore, Administrator of the Office of Children & Families in the Court (OCFC), said, “Family Finding combines common sense, good social and detective work, and the use of technology to seek out extended family members for dependent children.”

“Early results of this training are very promising,” Moore added. “A review of 40 dependency cases in phase one counties indicated that through Family Finding methods 1767 additional family resources were identified. Of those, approximately 250 became new lifelong connections for the dependent children.”

Legislature Shouldn’t Play Budgetary Waiting Game with Foster Kids’ Lives

The Morning Call

Over the course of our lives we wait for lots of things: wait to see a doctor, wait in check-out lines, wait in traffic; some state employees may even have to wait to get paid during this budget stalemate. But the nearly 20,000 children in Pennsylvania’s foster care system — placed due to abuse or neglect — should not have to wait one more day for us to make life better for them.

In Lehigh and Northampton counties, nearly 600 children are living in foster care. The General Assembly can pass child welfare financing reform this year that would help improve outcomes for children in foster care in the Lehigh Valley and across the state — but some legislators say it can wait until next year.

The Department of Public Welfare (DPW) is advancing a proposal that aims to help more children find permanent families and reduce the number of children who enter foster care. The plan would not cost the state any more money, and would create a set of financial incentives that would drive counties to increase home and community-based services which help keep kids safe and living in permanent families.

The revenue-neutral proposal would use the same amount of funds currently spent on child welfare — but use them more wisely. This is an important consideration during one of the most difficult budget sessions in Pennsylvania history.

Research shows that foster children placed in congregate care settings experience poorer social and educational outcomes than children placed in family foster homes. To make matters worse, it costs about $50,000 more each year to place a child in a congregate setting. This is the kind of change legislators need to embrace in tough budget times — one that saves us money and produces better results.

Both Lehigh and Northampton counties have stepped up to the plate and committed to safely reducing the number of children in foster care. They have joined more than a dozen other counties in two statewide improvement efforts — one project is sponsored by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and the other is part of a six-state effort sponsored by the National Governors Association.

These initiatives promote best practices such as expedited court reviews and family finding. Family finding is the diligent search of maternal and paternal extended family members willing to support the birth family so a child can safely stay in his home, or if a child must be placed in foster care, making all efforts to place the child with a family member. Both counties are carefully looking at their data and analyzing problem trends within their communities that are the catalyst for children entering foster care.

The financing proposal is the next natural step to support the counties’ program improvement efforts already under way and to provide a higher level of state reimbursement to support their work — such as assuring more children in foster care are placed in home settings — and providing special incentive grant funding for the use of evidence-based practices.

The measure needs to be passed with the 2009-2010 Pennsylvania state budget. Under current child welfare law, counties must submit their budget requests for the following year by Aug. 15. Waiting to pass this proposal will delay implementation of the changes by a full fiscal year! That’s 12 months from now and that’s a long time in the life of a child who is living out of home, awaiting placement with a family to call his or her own.

Yet, some legislators say child welfare financing reform can wait. Do we really want to tell nearly 600 children in the Lehigh Valley they can wait another year to be reunified with their families or placed in permanent homes? If we could do something now that would improve the lives of thousands of our most vulnerable children in Pennsylvania, why wouldn’t we?

This is one of the most important measures the General Assembly can pass for children.

Joan L. Benso is president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (PPC). To learn more about this proposal, see Copyright 2009, The Morning Call