Report paints uncertain picture of Pa. child welfare system in pandemic | Wednesday Morning Coffee

As expected, child protective service reports declined during the pandemic, but the substantiation rate for those reports reached a five-year high

December 8, 2021 7:12 am

(Pa. Partnerships for Children photo)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

A new report paints an uncertain picture for children, families and Pennsylvania’s child welfare system amid the COVID-19 pandemic, finding declines in child protective service reports and the number of children served in the state’s foster care system.

But the 12th annual ‘State of Child Welfare in PA‘ report put together by the advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children also acknowledges that their findings include incomplete data and do not reflect improvements that have since been made to the system.

There were a total of 32,919 child protective service reports in 2020, a 22% decline from 2019. Experts had expected such a decline, with children stuck inside, and unable to be seen by such mandated reporters as teachers and physicians. But just because they weren’t being seen didn’t mean that children weren’t at-risk during the pandemic.

That was borne out by a the number of substantiated reports, which hit a five-year high at 14% being investigated and found to be true, the report showed.

“While substantiation rates did increase, data from 2021 will be significant to see how trends shift as schools resumed in-person instruction. There was subsequently more interaction between mandated reporters, such as teachers, with children and families,” the group’s president and CEO, Kari King, said in a statement.

King said her organization expects the 2021 data to show an increase in referrals, but a decrease in substantiated reports as the state’s child welfare system “struggles to respond to the needs of children experiencing abuse and neglect during an unprecedented time of crisis.”

(Image via Pa. Partnerships for Children)

At the same time, the number of children served by the state’s foster care system similarly declined to 21,689 children in 2020, a 12% decline from 2019 numbers, according to the report.

“With overall reductions in placement, one could assume this translates to better interventions on the front-end of an investigation and correspondingly stabilizes families. However, when we look at the totality of the data from the start of an investigation through placement, the overall reduction correlates to the challenges we know were present due to the pandemic,” King said. “Again, fewer referrals being made by mandated reporters means fewer occasions to identify abuse leading to placement.”

In October, a new state plan took effect aimed at keeping more at-risk children in their homes and communities, reducing the need for foster and group home placements.

The plan is required under the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, a piece of legislation authorized under a February 2018 bipartisan budget deal that ended a government shutdown, and kept the federal government afloat.

Supporters have said the bill represents a historic step forward in protecting and promoting child welfare in the commonwealth, and across the nation.

The plan will “allow counties to really increase the use of those preventive services to mitigate risk and increase the safety factors for a child … working with the family and child to remain in their own communities,” Rachael Miller, the advocacy group’s policy director, told the Capital-Star at the time.

(Source: Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children)

The report makes a number of recommendations to policymakers across a wide variety of program areas. But chief among them is improving the state’s efforts to hire and retain qualified workers.

“Front-line workers, those we think of as essential in our communities and across the Commonwealth, include the child welfare caseworkers who hold high-stress, low-reward jobs to help the children and families they serve,” King said. “During the pandemic and beyond, the foster care system works best when it works to keep families together and expedite permanency for foster youth.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

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9 a.m. & 6 p.m., 523 Irvis/Harrisburg Hilton: Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing
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10 a.m., Pa. College of Technology, Williamsport: Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.