Luzerne County has been making positive changes in child welfare services, keeping in sync with — and in some cases moving faster than — statewide trends, according to a new report released Tuesday.
The annual “State of Child Welfare” report from the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children looks at data from 2009 to 2013 and cites the declining number of children placed in foster care and an increase in home services as proof the state is heading in the right direction.
“Foster care is meant to be a temporary intervention to assure the safety and well-being of a child,” the report notes. “A child who spends long periods in foster care is more likely than other children to drop out of school, have mental health challenges and experience unemployment and/or homelessness as an adult.”
Statewide, 8.6 out of every 1,000 children ended up in foster care in 2009. In 2013, the rate was down to 6.4 per 1,000, a 25.6 percent drop.
In Luzerne County, the placement rate in both years was higher — 13.8 per 1,000 in 2009 compared to 9.6 per 1,000 last year — but the decline was steeper at 30.4 percent.
The report also notes children who are put into foster care do better when placed in family settings rather than in group-home facilities, and that the state and county have reduced the use of group homes.
Children placed in group homes have “two-and-a-half times greater risk of delinquent behavior; less contact with their families and poorer relationships with biological siblings; lower levels of education; (and) more drug and alcohol abuse problems,” among other issues, the report notes.
Group-home placement has dropped 13.4 percent in Luzerne County and 24.3 percent statewide.
But the county was well ahead of the state to begin with, placing only 11.9 percent of foster care children in group homes in 2009 compared to 25.9 percent statewide. In 2013, the county placed 10.3 percent in group homes while statewide it was 19.6 percent.
Children placed in foster care are also spending less time there, and are not moved to other placements as often. The report notes “a child who faces multiple placements struggles to build and maintain healthy relationships and faces academic challenges due to school changes.”
Children placed in foster care are also being reunited with their families more often locally. In 2009, 47.3 percent of foster care children left the system to reunite with their families, while last year 50.5 percent were.
Statewide the rate was higher but virtually flat, going from 57.4 percent to 57.3 percent.
Children placed in foster care are also being adopted at a higher rate locally and statewide. In Luzerne County, 17.7 percent were adopted in 2009 and 21.2 percent in 2014. Statewide, the rate climbed from 15.4 percent to 20.2 percent.
And the number of months until adoption has shortened, dropping from 31.8 to 23.5 locally and from 31.6 to 26.7 statewide.
The report notes new laws passed in 2013 and others expected to be passed this year should further improve child safety and welfare by changing the legal definitions of child abuse, perpetrator and mandated reporter, and by improving requirements of abuse investigations, abuse clearances and employment/hiring bans.
But the report warns the improvements have led to an increase in “families coming to the attention of the child welfare system, potentially placing greater demands on the counties to serve additional children and families.”
Making the new laws work “will require a collective resolve and appropriate resources,” the report argues. “It also will require a continued commitment to the comprehensive, family-focused child welfare strategies that have been reaping positive benefits.”