Pa.’s child welfare system is ‘exhausted,’ new report concludes | Friday Morning Coffee

New research highlights the stresses on the state’s ‘under-resourced’ child welfare system

By: - September 30, 2022 7:12 am

(Source: Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children)

Pennsylvania’s child welfare system is “exhausted,” and can’t adequately respond to the needs of the children and youth it serves, according to a new report surveying its performance in 2021.

The report by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a Harrisburg-based advocacy group, also found racial disparities in the system, concluding that “Black, Hispanic, and children and families of multiple races are over-surveilled, investigated, and represented in all aspects of the system.”

“Children and youth at risk of abuse and neglect deserve a child welfare system equipped to respond to their individual needs and that uses group housing or congregate care placement only as a last resort,” the organization’s president and CEO, Kari King, said in a statement. “And counties must work to diversify their workforce to represent better the communities they serve and reduce bias.”

The report, based on 2021 data, examined both child protective services and general protective services. The former includes reports of physical and sexual abuse, as well as serious physical neglect. The latter focuses on indications of neglect, such parental substance abuse disorders, truancy, and homelessness, among other factors.

Child protective services reports jumped by more than 5,000 in 2021 to 38,013 last year, according to the report. However, the substantiation of those reports declined somewhat from the year before. Instances of repeat child abuse and neglect reached their highest point in five years, data indicated.

“A decline in substantiation could mean the workforce is overloaded and cannot thoroughly investigate cases of physical and sexual abuse and serious physical neglect,” King said.

Meanwhile, general protective services reports jumped by more than 9,000 to 161,709 such reports last year. More than a quarter of those reports, 27.1 percent, were substantiated, the highest rate in five years, according to the report.

“Data from 2021 shows a flood of non-abuse allegations and an increase in substantiation, pointing to a workforce overloaded with non-abuse cases that other systems could support,” King said. “Agencies cannot achieve positive outcomes unless they are adequately staffed and supported to effectively carry out the duties of keeping children safe, families intact and promoting permanency and a successful transition to adulthood.”

The report also noted that “children and youth are entering the foster care system for many non-abuse reasons, raising concerns about the appropriate use of placement, specifically for allegations under [general protective services].

“While GPS allegations can present a risk to a child’s safety, with community-based support and intervention, a child can remain safely in their own homes without needing placement,” the report’s authors wrote.

(Image via Pa. Partnerships for Children)

The report documented racial disparities in the child welfare and foster care system, with Black children being nearly 4.5 times more likely to reenter foster care, and four times more likely to remain in foster care than white children.

Children of two or more races also faced significant disparities compared to white children. That included being four times more likely to be in foster care and 3.5 times more likely to have a first-time entry, researchers concluded.

Researchers also found that:

  • “Children who are Black, Hispanic (of any race), or of multiple races had higher than expected rates of abuse referrals, including those that were ultimately substantiated, as well as valid GPS allegations.
  • “Black children are represented in foster care re-entries 2.7 times more than their rate in the general population
  • “Black children are disproportionately placed in pre-adoptive homes and institutions.
  • “In 2021, 20,490 children were served in the Pennsylvania foster care system, a decrease of more than 1,000 children from 2020 and the lowest rate in the last five years,” and
  • “Almost 1 in 4 children and youth in placement experienced a re-entry into care. Transition age youth, or youth ages 13 and older, make up almost half of the population re-entering placement,” researchers found.

The CPS and GPS data included in the report comes from the 2021 calendar year. The data captures the “last half of the 2020-21 school year, and the beginning of 2021-22 with most operations resuming to pre-pandemic conditions,” the report’s authors noted.

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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.