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Social Services: Group says too many foster kids will never have a permanent home

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A November report from the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children argues that 30 percent of children in the system "have little likelihood of ever having a permanent family to call their own."

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that "a large number of children [are] still in foster care after 17 months despite legal guidelines that they be released for adoption."

The PPC argues that the first goal of foster-care programs should be a reunification with the child's birth family. But when that's not possible, counties in Pennsylvania should push for some other type of "legal permanence," as opposed to temporary arrangements such as foster families or institutions.

The majority of Allegheny County's foster youth (64.3 percent) have reunification as their ultimate plan, according to the PPC; however 7.1 percent are planning for long-term foster care. That's two percentage points above the state average.

The PPC's statewide survey found that 10.5 percent of children who have been in foster care for 17 or more months had not been legally freed from their parents.

Allegheny County -- which has the second largest number of children in foster care in Pennsylvania, with 2,389 -- was slightly above the average with 13.8 percent of children who'd been in care for 17 months and not yet released for adoption.

"There are a number of reasons" a child might not want to legally terminate the connection with his or her parents, explains Marcia Sturdivant, the county's deputy director in the Office of Children, Youth and Families. "You have to break each of those cases down by the specifics of the case."

Sturdivant says that "some of those children are older children who may not want to be adopted." And there are other children who have "a very good relationship with their foster family, but just don't want to sever those ties with their birth family."

Despite the numbers, Joan Benso, president and CEO of PPC, says that Allegheny County is actually ahead of the curve in many regards.

"Allegheny County has really been leading the charge in moving towards permanency around the state," she says.

For instance, Allegheny County reviews each foster-care case every three months, while federal law only requires six-month reviews. More frequent reviews potentially mean less children waiting in the system indefinitely.

When a county determines that reunification with a child's birth family is not possible, Benso says the ideal placement is with some other relative.

Allegheny's Sturdivant maintains that the county already aggressively looks for other kin.

"We will do whatever we can to locate family members," she says. "It doesn't stop just at grandma or granddad. We just keep asking until we can't come up with anyone."

Going further, the county will start using a Web-based program called Family Finding in January. Sturdivant says it's an advanced location system that also functions as a "clinical intervention tool."

"We can locate people that the child may have lost touch with, or the child may have not known," she says. "I think that it will give us a wider range of folks."

Aside from practical changes at the county level, Sturdivant and Benso are in agreement that a change in state law could help more children move into permanent homes. They say that Pennsylvania would benefit from a system that was more geared toward "open adoption" in some cases.

In an open adoption, an agreement is worked out between the adoptive family and the birth family such that the child maintains some level of contact with his or her biological relatives. Benso says that 22 states currently "allow more openness in adoption than we do."

In Pennsylvania, "when you're adopted, that closes all of your ties," Sturdivant says. "Open adoption, I think, would encourage families and some of those older children to move toward that type of permanency."

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