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DHS News Newsletter October 2006 

DHS 10-Year Anniversary – Office of Children, Youth and Families – A National Leader

October 2006

The National Family Preservation Network (NFPN) met in Pittsburgh in June 2006 for its annual face-to-face board meeting. The NFPN used the opportunity to take a closer look at the DHS Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) for its reputation of being one of the most effective child welfare systems in the nation.

In their own words: “We discovered a lot of evidence to support that claim!” On the NFPN Web site, the organization highlights three of the policies that they believe help account for CYF effectiveness in the area of family preservation.

Emphasis on safety for the most vulnerable children

Nationwide, about 1,500 children die each year from child abuse and neglect with 80% of those under the age of four. The last death in Allegheny County of a child known to the system was a four-year-old who was “screened out” for investigation. The child welfare agency then established a policy that every complaint involving a child under the age of six would result in a home visit. In order to have sufficient staffing for these visits, administrators are included in the on-call rotation when the complaint involves a young child. For the past four years there have been no child deaths in which the agency had prior involvement with the family.

Focus on prevention of placement

Allegheny County’s philosophy is to place a child out-of-home only when absolutely necessary, because placement is traumatic for the child. Agency administrators believe that one person should never have to take responsibility for placement decisions. Pre-placement conferences are held on each child except in extreme emergencies when a child must be removed immediately. The caseworker, supervisor, and other available staff are involved in the pre-placement conference. The conference not only provides opportunity to analyze whether placement is necessary but also to begin to identify the services needed to keep the family together. Over a seven-year period of time, Allegheny County has reduced foster care placements by 24% while the number of foster care placements nationwide has been reduced 6% over a six-year period of time.

Direct the majority of resources to prevention of placement

Allegheny County spends half of its budget on prevention and in-home services. It reinvests the savings from reduced out-of-home placements into more prevention services. Families in need of services to remain together receive immediate crisis services of 12–24 hours of face-to-face time per week for up to one month, with $500 available for purchases to help keep the family intact. Progress and needs of the family are then re-assessed and additional services provided as indicated.

Marcia Sturdivant, Ph.D., DHS Deputy Director, CYF notes another important factor for the success of these efforts that might not be as obvious to outside eyes.

“All of our family preservation efforts are a result of the dedication of not only CYF staff, but of the staff in the Offices of Behavioral Health and Community Services and the ability of staff from all of these offices to work together for a common cause,” Sturdivant said.

Sturdivant continued: “Because of this practice of working with other DHS program and support offices, CYF is recognized as a leader in the provision of kinship care and subsidized legal custodianship. We have reversed the trend of having more percentage of children in out of home placement than residing in their own homes. Now, 70 percent of all children served remain in their own homes. We have also increased safety outcomes for children. Our Family Group Decision Making model is applauded nationally as an ideal intervention strategy and one of the leading national models for family empowerment strategies.”

Finally, Sturdivant noted the uniqueness of the idea of celebrating reunification at the annual Families United Celebration, an event that since its inception has partnered CYF staff with staff from the DHS Office of Community Relations. The impact of Families United was felt outside of Allegheny County, as well. When the human services agency in New York City learned of the event, they began hosting their own Families United celebration in Central Park.

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