Making Pennsylvania a National Leader in Family Preservation

Kathleen Creamer, Community Legal Services; Rachael Miller, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children; Karissa Phelps, Temple Legal Aid; Jenny Pokempner, Juvenile Law Center,
grandmother holding three children at beach

As National Kinship Care month ends, we wanted to reflect on all that we have learned from kin, families, and youth who have provided their brave and honest thoughts for how we can improve our state and national practices surrounding family preservation. There are many policy improvements that can be made, and this final blog in the series will focus on recommendations for lawmakers to consider. A more equitable system results when we prioritize and support family and kin in law, policy, and practice. Child safety and well-being is also furthered when kids can stay with their families and in their communities and when families are supported to thrive. In the spring we will issue policy briefs which will provide recommendations for how Pennsylvania can become a national leader in supporting and strengthening families by prioritizing and promoting kinship care. Below are a few ideas for reform we will be exploring.

Analysis and modification to current statutory requirements for approval or denial of licensing kin is necessary to reducing or eliminating discriminatory and racist practices.

We must review and update current policies and practices, including regulations and bulletins. Standards that open the door for subjectivity in decision making and invite opportunities for implicit bias should be eliminated. Guidance to counties should ensure that policies work harder to screen in—rather than out—kin who are committed to the child and family. Automatic disqualifiers should be carefully considered and should only be allowable if it places the child’s safety at risk.

Specific processes and protections should be codified and publicly available for the formal licensing of kin for children in child welfare placement. For example, a statewide process for waivers for non-safety licensing requirements should be developed that is consistent across counties and regions. A waiver process should be placed on the states Keep Kids Safe website and should include timeframes for when the state must respond to the county in writing and when the county must provide written notification to kin. Families must be provided a user-friendly way to appeal any decision that denies placement or services.

Develop stronger data collection and accountability measures.

The state should require increased data collection from counties surrounding family engagement, finding and placement. Currently, the required data collection surrounding family engagement measures is limited and widely ranges across counties. Data collection should include which kin are located, utilized as a support or connection, or considered for placement as well as the techniques that were used for engagement. This includes the need to better understand when and why kin are denied for placement. Data collection must also track whether and how youth were engaged in the family finding and engagement process.

There must be accountability measures that ensure that all counties are implementing family finding and engagement with the same rigor and fidelity. To that end, the state should further provide clear guidance and standards for family finding, which includes youth and family engagement. Baseline outcomes must be set, with technical assistance being provided to counties who struggle with meeting those outcomes. Licensing and quality improvement efforts with the counties should include how the state is monitoring family engagement strategies and outcomes.

Invest in implementing high quality attorney representation statewide, and strengthen court and attorney engagement with kin.

The state should invest in ensuring parents and children receive high quality, interdisciplinary legal representation. Kin are rarely a party to dependency cases, and parent and child attorneys are best positioned to advocate for their clients’ interests in maintaining connection or placement with kin. Interdisciplinary teams can better work with their clients to identify appropriate kin and ensure children’s safety in kinship placements.

The courts and legal professionals have a powerful role in ensuring that each family receives quality family finding and all potential kinship resources are explored. The Family Engagement Initiative, a project of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts, has shown impressive results in counties that have implemented its model, a model that sees family finding as a shared responsibility and an ongoing practice. Even where this model is not yet implemented, the parent attorneys and GAL/child attorneys must take a proactive role in supporting kinship and family connection. Attorneys should be advised by the county agency of all potential kinship resources explored and why kin are disqualified, if applicable, so the attorney can appropriately advocate for - or against - kinship placement or disqualification. The basis for the disqualification of any identified kin should be readily available to GAL/child and parent attorneys upon request.

Consider effective approaches from other states.

There is much we can learn and borrow from other states who have invested in family preservation strategies and have improved rates of keeping children with their parents or increased rates of kin placements. In Nassau, New York, one child welfare director created "Blind Removal Strategy." This process occurs when a committee of child welfare professionals convene a case review to determine if a child will be removed from their home. While the caseworker presents information on the case, including assessment of risk, case history, and family strengths, none of the identifiable information is offered. This includes demographics and neighborhood. As a result, a significant reduction was seen in black children entering placement, from 55.5% in 2010 to 29% in 2015. Tennessee has implemented their Kinship Exemption Request policy which outlines family finding attempts that must be made prior to the child welfare agency seeking approval to proceed with non-relative placement options. Included in the process is the use of kinship coordinators, who assist the worker with ensuring that all relative options have been located, contacted, and exhausted. Additional layers of accountability are assigned to ensure that all efforts are made to place the child with kin prior to proceeding with approval for an exemption.

About the Expert

Jennifer Pokempner is a Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center. At Juvenile Law Center, her work focuses on improving outcomes and opportunities for older youth in the foster care system through policy and legal advocacy at the local, state, and national levels.