Foster Care Unification & Reunification – A Meeting with City Council

(April 21, 2023) On April 11, 2023, I participated in the Pgh City Council Post Agenda Meeting scheduled by City Council president member Theresa Kail-Smith to discuss Foster Care Unification & Reunification. Allies for Children was just one of many stakeholder agencies invited to participate. We were joined at the table by Director of DHS, Erin Dalton, director from Auberle 412 Youth Zone, Aimee Plowman, and the Executive Director of KidsVoice, Scott Hollander. We were also fortunate to have Dr. Jacqueline Wilson, who is the Executive Director of TRAC, along with Ja-Neen Jones, who is a Director at TRAC. For more information about these individuals and their organizations, please see the beginning of this livestreamed recording of the meeting. The Community Health & Human Services Policy Manager, Ricky Moody, helped pull us all together and participated in the conversation. Councilwoman Strassburger and Councilwoman Warwick were also present for the discussion.

We kicked off the conversation with the current state of child welfare in Allegheny County. The Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families (CYF) receives about 14,000 reports of abuse and neglect a year. Each report is investigated and then a determination is made as to whether abuse or neglect has occurred. Although only about 7% of the maltreatment is substantiated, even 1% would be much too high. Child abuse and neglect are complex problems rooted in unhealthy relationships and environments. Preventing child abuse and neglect requires addressing risk and protective factors at the individual, relational, community, and societal levels.

There are some preventative measures and programs in place. DHS funds 26 Family Support Centers throughout the county which provide a lot of activities for children and families, classes for parents, tangible necessities, and a wide-range of other supports. Sometimes, families find it hard to get to a family center. Thankfully, there is a home visiting option for pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers. There is proactive outreach to new parents through the Hello Baby program. Child welfare dollars fund many of the out-of-school time providers which can provide a safe and supportive environment for children and youth.

As we have written in several recent blogs, there is a huge need for more prevention focused mental health supports in our communities. There are not enough services in place to meet the mental health needs of children and families. Due to staff shortages, there are long waiting lists for the services and supports that are available.

I talked about the opportunity for community based organizations and out-of-school time providers to provide non-traditional mental health supports for children and families. The professionals in these organizations have trusted relationships with children and families and their support is invaluable. According to DHS, American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds are being used to fund those informal mental health supports at places such as Steel Smiling, with pastors, and with other community members.

Allegheny County and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF), have begun recruiting for the first and second cohorts of Behavioral Health Fellows, an innovative new effort designed to strengthen and grow the region’s behavioral health workforce. According to DHS, this program is funded by $15 million in Medicaid funding. Behavioral Health Fellows is designed to entice existing behavioral healthcare staff and new hires into available jobs with local behavioral health, mental health and substance use service providers. Recruits will enter into a minimum two-year employment obligation in exchange for educational loan payment, certification reimbursement, training opportunities, salary enhancements and other incentives.

It was impossible to avoid questions about the workforce. City Council wanted to know how many caseworkers there are versus how many are needed. There are currently about 200 CYF caseworkers in Allegheny County but they need to hire at least 100 more. This is obviously a cause for concern, but DHS is actively recruiting and hiring more staff. The salary of CYF caseworkers was recently increased so hopefully this may attract more people.

There is no doubt that there is plenty of room for improvements in our current child welfare system but it is also very important to recognize some of the improvements that have been made in Allegheny County. Allegheny County is the model across the state in terms of child welfare. There has been a decrease in the number of dependent children – those children who have been placed in agency custody by the court based on a family’s inability to provide adequate care. KidsVoice used to represent at least 5,000 children every year and this year they will likely represent under 3,000. When a child has to be removed from their family, over 60% of them are placed with kin, which can reduce the trauma of removal by providing continuity of care and connections to their family and community.

We concluded the discussion with how the City Council can help support the child welfare system moving forward. We hope that this is the first of many meetings.

Heather Wilkes, Allies for Children Policy Manager