Revolution in child cases

Many assumptions associated with the way the courts and human service agencies deal with cases of abused or neglected children are being challenged these days, to the point where Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva characterizes what is happening akin to a “revolution.”

She gave an example a couple of weeks ago while discussing efforts by Supreme Court Justice Max Baer and the high court’s Office of Children and Families to change the age-old system in which children were removed from their homes, their contact with parents limited or severed, and their futures often in doubt, moving from foster home to foster home or group home to group home.

She cited a case in which a child was injured while the mother was sleeping.

She pondered that it is easy to “assume” the mom just didn’t care.

But, the judges and service agency representatives now know that such cases require closer inspection, or as the judge put it, there is a need “to drill into it and ask why.”

Kopriva called the new way of looking at things the application of “critical thinking,” rather than “assumption,” in deciding what strategy to use in resolving these serious cases that affect so many children.

She admitted “assuming” you know a problem is easier, particularly for a judge who is pressed to resolve many cases on a daily basis, than digging deep into a case and developing an individual plan for the youngster, that plan initially with a focus of returning the child to mother, father and extended family.

In drilling into the case she was talking about, Kopriva said it was discovered the mother cared very much for her kids.

She was raising five children without anyone helping her, and she was working a full week.

When she got home from work, she was “exhausted,” it was determined, and that is the reason she was sleeping when she should have been more aware.

Blair County Children, Youth & Families, the County’s child welfare agency, became involved, as did an outside agency, and the agency called a meeting of the mother’s extended family, asking who was willing to step forward and care for the kids, maybe on the weekends, so the mother could get some rest.

That step, plus parenting classes, led to the return of the women’s children.

“The family jumped in and started helping,” said Kopriva, reflecting on the common sense solution rather than breaking up the woman and her family, a strategy that could have disastrous consequences.

The judge provided another example in which a mom whose children were in care was not showing for visitation.

In digging deeper, it was determined the mother became very upset after an hour visit with her children because she just didn’t want to leave them.

The answer to that problem was to schedule longer visits for the mother.

Agencies are now scheduling child visits, which tend to lead to reunification of families rather than permanent dissolution, at times the parent can attend.

One man was having problems making visits during the day with his child. The judge said it was because he worked at night, and his sleep time was at the same time the agency was scheduling his visits. The time of visitation was adjusted, not to suit the agency, but to suit the parent, Kopriva explained.

“We’re trying to move into critical thinking,” Kopriva explained in a recent interview in her Blair County Courthouse office.

But what is happening in Blair County is just an example of what is taking place throughout Pennsylvania and is spreading to other other states.

According to Baer, Kopriva is part of what he too said was a “revolution” in child care.

Baer was instrumental in starting a series of roundtables at the county level in which child care problems are discussed.

The local roundtables in each of the state’s 60 judicial districts feed into regional roundtables and finally into a state roundtable, which meets once a year.

The statewide group is comprised of many workgroups that are investigating issues facing child care and the courts.

Kopriva was part of a statewide workgroup investigating child visitation. The group just completed three years of work with the publication of a Parent Visitation Guide.

The primary point of that guide reflects what is happening in Pennsylvania as a whole.

It states: “In Pennsylvania visitation is a right, not a privilege, and should never be used as punishment.”

Kopriva co-chaired the visitation workgroup with Katherine J. Gomez, an attorney with the Family Advocacy Unit of Community Legal Services Inc., in Philadelphia.

They were assisted by a judicial analyst, Christy R. Stanek, of the Supreme Court’s office of Children and Families in the Courts.

Cleaning up ‘a mess’

Baer became an Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) judge in 1990, and four years later he was appointed the administrative judge of the County’s Family Court Division, and what he found was “just horrible.”

Children were not being helped by the courts.

“The system was hurting kids rather than helping. All the systems were a mess (nationwide),” he said.

On top of all that, the taxpayers were spending millions of dollars supporting the system of foster care and group homes.

He said he started a reform process and was able to turn around the Allegheny County system.

What concerned Baer was despite the great expenditure of money, the court and child welfare systems weren’t reaching the children. By the time the children entered their teen years, they were on the streets, they were delinquent, carrying guns, involved in drugs. They weren’t going to school, and they joined gangs. The girls often resorted to prostitution.

Baer said the lives of the children were being ruined between the ages of 5 and 10, and by ages 14 and 15, they were on a path where they just couldn’t have a full life. Many were ending up in prison. The state’s prison population has grown dramatically to more than 50,000 inmates, although the Corbett administration is trying to level off the numbers and reduce the trend.

With his success in Allegheny County, Baer wanted to tackle the problem on a bigger stage.

“The only way I could impact children was to run for the Supreme Court and use it as a bully pulpit,” he said as he discussed the child welfare system during a recent telephone interview.

Baer found little communication among the 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

“Everybody was doing it badly,” he said. “Nobody knew the best practices around the world.”

Some counties may have had good ideas, he said, but nobody knew about those efforts because of the lack of communication.

This is what led to the creation of the Supreme Court’s Office of Children and Families in the courts and the formation of the roundtable system where ideas are exchanged and issues examined.

The effort might have been his idea, but thousands of people have become involved, and the “seeds of hope to help abused and neglected kids have been put in place,” he said.

“We have created a revolution,” he said.

Kids are no longer getting lost between the ages of 5 and 10. They are going to school, and he said Pennsylvania’s new effort, in place for eight years, has “caught the eye of the nation.”

He said Pennsylvania’s effort is being studied by New York, New Jersey and many other states.

Baer says the system has been successful in keeping children with their parents or with extended family members, and he said in the next five years, he would like to see family conferencing be used in 100 percent of the cases of abuse and neglect being addressed by child welfare.

He wants to see children out of foster homes and group homes, and he said the issues of children must be addressed at an early age.

Sandra Moore, the administrator of the office and Children and Families in the Courts, said the office helps support judges and attorneys involved in abuse and neglect cases and offered proof of Baer’s optimism – that things are changing – by pointing out the number of children in placement statewide is down from 22,000 to 13,800, what she called, “A significant reduction.”

Many of those children were reunited with their parents or adopted. Many of those adoptions are by extended family members. Some turned 18 and are considered adults.

The new way of looking at child issues has saved taxpayers $120 million since 2006, Baer said.

The issues

If there is one point that emerges no matter what issues become the focus of the statewide roundtable, it has to do with the way children, for the most part, feel about their parents.

Baer made the point that “kids all over the United States are born to parents who are just not competent.”

But Baer and Kopriva also made the point that children, no matter the competency level of dad and mom tend to love their parents and are devastated when they are removed from them.

That is why the emphasis these days is on reunification, because of the less dramatic impact on the child.

But the caveat to the overall concept, as expressed by Kopriva, Baer and Blair County child welfare officials, Stacie Horvath, administrator, and Georgette Ayers, assistant administrator, is that safety is the first concern of the system.

The Visitation Workgroup that Kopriva co-chaired, stated the agency’s primary job is “to protect children from abuse and neglect.”

While keeping families together is an overall goal, another is “to make sure a child has a safe, permanent home … to make sure the child gets basic needs, food, safe housing, supervision, clothes, medical care.”

The state roundtable workgroups are tackling many issues.

A report in 2012 for instance focused on visitation for children of incarcerated parents.

The workgroup concluded that incarcerated parents have the same rights as parents who are not behind bars, which means they can participate in the court process, offer their ideas on case planning, have visitation with their children and work toward reunification.

While information is scant on how many children are in placement due to the jailing of their parents, it is believed that 100,000 children in Pennsylvania and 2.7 million children nationwide have parents in jail.

That workgroup, led by Judge Kim Berkeley Clark of Allegheny County, recommended collaboration between the courts, child welfare agencies, correctional facilities and parole and probation offices and that an effort be made to improve visitation rooms where children can come to see a parent in a “child friendly environment.”

The Blair County Prison constructed a room where children can visit with their fathers in what looks like a living room-type setting. That “fatherhood initiative” is still operating, Horvath said.

Other workgoups have studied truancy prevention, drug and alcohol abuse, and the use of psychotropic medication of children in Pennsylvania.

That last subject caught Pennsylvania officials by surprise when they found out children in placement in the state have a higher rate of drug therapy than most other states.

Kopriva and her Visitation Workgroup in the spring released recommendations during meetings with lawyers and judges in Pittsburgh, Mechanicsburg and Philadelphia.

Workgroups focus on research and what is known as “best practices,” or adaptation of proven ideas from other areas.

For instance, Baer pointed out that the idea of family conferencing came from New Zealand.

The process made its way to Hawaii, then California, and has become a staple in Pennsylvania.

The idea expressed by the workgroup is that visitation is a right all parents have – safety permitting.

Children, the research shows, are more likely to have less trauma and are more likely to be reunified with their parents if they are granted frequent visitation while in care.

The workgroup concluded visitation is meaningful for infants, and at least one county requires visitation between a parent and child every day.

In all cases in which children are taken from their parents, whether the child is an infant or an older teen, the first visitation is to occur within 72 hours.

The new recommendations of the Visitation Workgroup say an infant or toddler should have at last three weekly visitations with the parents.

Older children are to have visitation at least once a week, but other considerations such as preschool, school or employment begin to enter the picture.

There has been a shift in philosophy in Pennsylvania , the Kopriva workgroup emphasized.

In the past, it was assumed “professionals know best.”

The new way of looking at child care is that “the family know their needs,” according to the workgroup.

The agency plan was best in the past.

The family plan is now considered the best.

The idea that “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” has been replaced by the idea that “all families have healthy members.”

Horvath, the director of Blair County Children, Youth & Families, said visitation policies of her agency, compared to the new ideas being presented by the state roundtable workgroup, will be examined this summer.