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Politics & Government

Pennsylvania is keeping more foster kids with their families and out of group homes

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Emma Lee
/
WHYY

More Pennsylvania children in foster care are being placed with family members or someone they know. At a press conference on Thursday, officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services said in 2019, 38.7% of kids in foster care were placed in “kinship care.”

“One of our goals with this plan is to continue increasing the percentage of children in kinship care and decrease the percentage of children in congregate care,” said Jon Rubin, the deputy secretary of the DHS Office of Children, Youth and Families.

Money from the federal government could help the department meet that goal. DHS plans to use money from the Family First Prevention Services Act to offer trauma-informed programs to children and families before abuse and neglect occur.

The 2018 law gives states the option to use federal funds for “evidence-based” prevention services that prioritize keeping children with their families. That includes mental health services, substance abuse prevention and treatment, and in-home parenting classes, according to a statement from the department.

Pennsylvania has also worked to decrease its use of “congregate settings,” such as institutions and group homes, for children in the foster care system.

The overall number of children entering foster care in Pennsylvania is also declining. According to DHS officials, 2,797 fewer children entered foster care in 2020 compared to the previous year.

But Rubin said Black children still make up a disproportionate number of kids in foster care.

“Black Children make up 14% of the total population of Pennsylvania, but 35% of children in foster care are Black. And Black children represent 42% of the children who have been in foster care for two years or more,” he said.

Rubin said addressing racial inequalities in the state’s child welfare system is a top priority and will help strengthen families. The department plans to use federal funds to review child welfare data and practices to help reduce racial disparities.

There are currently about 14,000 children in foster care in Pennsylvania.

DHS also released its annual Child Protective Services report, which details statewide data on child abuse. It found that the pandemic led to fewer reports of suspected child abuse last year.

DHS received 32,919 reports of suspected child abuse in 2020—about 10,000 fewer than the previous year. Department officials attributed the decline to the pandemic and reduced contact between children and mandated reporters, like teachers.

Officials also said the percentage of suspected child abuse reports that were substantiated increased from 11.5% in 2019 to 14.0% in 2020.

But “Pennsylvania’s child welfare system did not stop or slow down at any time during 2020,” said DHS Acting Secretary Meg Snead. “ChildLine remained fully operational. County and DHS caseworkers continued investigating reports. Families continued receiving services they needed.”

Going forward, state officials say they’ll work with counties more directly to stop abuse before it occurs.