Thanks to a host of new strategies -- the latest a reference guide for family court judges and child practitioners -- the state is improving the way cases involving neglected and abused children are handled both in the courtroom and outside it.
According to Department of Welfare statistics, the number of Pennsylvania children in foster care fell from 21,395 in September 2006 to 15,920 in March 2010. As a result of 5,475 fewer children in foster care, the child welfare system has saved Pennsylvania $220 million.
The number of children in foster care in Allegheny County decreased by 1,005, from 2,918 to 1,913, during that four-year period.
"As a physician, I'm 100 percent for the trend," said Janet Squires, chief at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Child Advocacy Center. But she does have a caveat: "There's a reason that sometimes children have to be moved." The system still isn't perfect, she said, even if the new strategies have earned Allegheny County bragging rights.
"Pennsylvania is on the cusp, if not already being recognized as one of the absolute national leaders [in child welfare]," said state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, adding that 10 years ago the state child welfare system was probably one of the most dysfunctional.
Behind the reduction is the combination of six different practices including Family Finding, which helps professionals find relatives who could potentially care for an abused and neglected child, said Sandy Moore, administrator at the Office of Children and Families in Courts. The brainchild of Justice Baer, the office was created by court in 2006 to minimize the amount of time children spend in foster care, reunite families and accelerate adoptions.
Benjamin Zuckerman, a managing attorney at Juvenile Court Project, attended an all day Family Finding training session. He said the "impressive" program succeeds in finding relatives for potential placement that might not otherwise be found.
But the program isn't just about placement -- it also can improve the lives of children by providing a relative to visit them on a holiday or buy them a birthday present, Mr. Zuckerman said.
Some of the other practices are more frequent judicial reviews -- state law requires one every six months, but in prioritized counties one is done every three, or more if necessary -- and Family Group Decision-Making, which involves family members in deciding the fate of an abused or neglected child.
"Do I think we're achieving reunification at a higher rate? I think when you have a parent who's a part of formulating the plan for reunification, they're going to be more invested in it. You also have family members who are invested in it. It does help," said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kathleen Mulligan, who is assigned to the family division.
In much of child welfare, children are placed directly in shelters or in the homes of strangers, Justice Baer said. Foster care, created to be a form of emergency care, ended up becoming a long-term solution, with children moving from home to home and waiting, often unrealistically, for their biological parents to become capable of caring for them, Justice Baer said.
"If those kids did not have mental health and emotional issues when we took them from mom's home," said Justice Baer, "certainly they did by time we were done with them."
Placing children with family members is not the perfect solution, but it is one of the best out there, he said, adding that experts agree.
"Most often those available placements, if they're appropriate, are the best chance the child has to maintain as much normality in their lives as possible and to minimize the natural stress that's going to come with being removed," Mr. Zuckerman said.
A possible drawback can be a lack of responsibility on the part of the parents -- such a move doesn't always force them to acknowledge the problem and make the necessary changes, said Dr. Squires. And placement with family members still requires oversight to look out for the best interests of the child, something that isn't always provided, especially in tough economic times, Dr. Squires added.
The practices are being phased in across the state's 67 counties, Ms. Moore said. The first phase, which included Allegheny County, was completed in 2009 and the third phase is under way. A total of 31 counties are now involved, and together cover about 76 percent of children in out-of-home care, Ms. Moore said.
The newest addition to the child welfare improvement strategy, the 263-page Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook, will provide help to the new and inexperienced judges often presiding over the family court system, as well as the more seasoned judges who want a refresher on a rule or statute, Justice Baer said.
In six months, a science component to the benchbook will be issued. It will cover topics such as child development, mental health issues and drugs and alcohol, Ms. Moore said.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kelly Bigley, who has been serving in family court for about 21/2 years, said she believes the book will be a big help. But she added that new judges who dominate the family court bring something more than inexperience to the bench -- an openness and a willingness to try new programs.
"I think it has actually worked to the advantage to the court," Judge Bigley said. "I didn't come in with 'this is how it works, this is how it's always been done.' I'm not stuck in the old patterns and the old ways."
While Justice Baer said the number of children in foster care will never reach zero, he is hopeful that the decrease will continue.
"The better we do the slower [improvements will occur], but I think we'll still be getting better 20 years from now," he said.
Katie Falloon: email@example.com or 412-263-1723.