Safe and Educated: Next Steps in the Fight for Pennsylvania Youth

Jessica Feierman,

Children’s Rights and Education Law Center just released an important – and devastating – report: Unsafe and Uneducated:  Indifference to Dangers in Pennsylvania’s Residential Child Welfare Facilities. The report shows us young people who are sexually and physically abused by staff and youth, physically restrained, injured, and even killed in our facilities. The report is a call to action. 

No doubt, our facilities need better oversight to avoid such abuses – but our youth also deserve more than that. They deserve to be kept safe and supported in their own homes, in other family settings, and in their communities. How should Pennsylvania do this? First, we need to ensure that we have adequate funding for core services and supports for youth in foster care, their families, and resource families. Recent federal legislation, the Family First Prevention Services Act, supports this goal by incentivizing family-based care for youth rather than congregate care settings. Pennsylvania should use the federal legislation as an opportunity to further these incentives. Pennsylvania should also update the assessment process so that the first out-of-home placement is the right one. Too often, young people bounce from home to home, creating uncertainty in their social supports, their schooling, and their lives. We need a system that allows us to get it right the first time around – connecting young people with supportive and loving families.   

For those young people who are in congregate care, we should transform the settings. Rather than group homes, we should have short-term residential treatment settings that meet agreed upon standards and are overseen by the county and state. These placements should be short term, transitional setting for young people, not the end-game. But while youth are in these placements, they should be provided with high quality education – ideally in their home schools – have access needed supportive services and remain connected with their family and their communities. In addition, every facility must track the use of restraints, isolation, and physical and sexual abuse as well as the educational needs and outcomes of all youth.   

In the juvenile justice system, too, our legislative reforms should focus on bringing youth home, focusing our funding on providing a diverse array of meaningful non-residential community-based programs, supports, and services designed to meet the individual needs of young people and their families to build on their strengths. 

Unsafe and Uneducated put Pennsylvania’s problems in the spotlight. It’s up to all of us now to push for the visionary solutions that will create healthier children and a healthier community.  

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