(EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the years, Lycoming County Children and Youth services and approaches have changed. This series focuses on the newer face and phases of the agency.)
When people hear "Children and Youth," a certain stigma or negative feeling might be attached based on an assumption that the agency is waiting in the wings to swoop down and take people's kids - but that couldn't be farther from the truth.
In times past, the agency did have more of a dictatorial, "I know better than you" approach, but those winds began to change about 14 years ago with the State's implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act . This federal legislation required increased efforts to move children more quickly toward permanency, promoted more timely adoptions and required child safety to be considered in every step of the case plan and review process.
This started the agency down the path of working to finalize adoptions on a backlog of children whose parental rights had been terminated but were still waiting in foster care for a permanent family, sometimes for many years. Rick Saylor, Children's Services director helped guide local system changes that removed the backlog and bottlenecks of cases moving through our system, said Mark Egly, agency administrator.
According to Saylor, in 2000, the agency
averaged 150 children in foster care a day with about 80 of those children free for adoption. As the backlog was reduced, this freed up agency resources which could be used at the front end the system to prevent children from coming into care, said Saylor.
What really changed, said Matt Salvatori, director of Support Services, is how services are provided to families throughout our system. "It's more on how we engage the families and community, building relationships and working to provide services on a voluntary basis," Salvatori said.
"Guiding these changes was a return to our core mission of child safety, and coming to better understand the trauma that a child suffers from being removed from their parents and the family, friends, school and community they know," Egly said. " ... The last thing we want to do is have to remove children from their families - we want to work with the family to address the safety issues and support them to be better parents. We are more proactive in our approach to working with other agencies, schools, health care and local communities to engage families in a strengths-based, solution-focused manner."
By safely reducing the number of children in placement, more resources could be dedicated to prevention services, as prevention has become a crucial part of the agency's services to the community.
There are two prevention programs: in-home outreach and parenting and school-based outreach.
Both of the voluntary programs take a proactive approach and play a "critical" role in keeping children and families out of the formal child welfare system, Egly said. The programs attempt to deal with child and family issues that have the potential to develop into situations where a child's safety cannot be assured and placement in foster care becomes necessary.
"When we looked at some of the underlying issues that brought families into our (Children and Youth) system with allegations of neglect or abuse, we saw this as a way to get out there and engage families early, before those issues escalate into more serious problems," Egly said.
Not only does prevention save money, it provides better outcomes for children and their families.
"It's much more effective to address the root causes of some of the issues, such as lack of parenting skills," Egly said. "It reduces trauma for kids and keeps families together."
In-home outreach services "help Lycoming County families meet the everyday challenges of raising children and maintaining a household," according to a pamphlet. Along with available parenting education, help is available for everything from life skills to finding and maintaining housing.
Parenting classes are done in the participants' homes to eliminate the need for child care and transportation for that purpose.
"When you have a child, they don't come with instructions," Egly said. "You generally parent how you were parented."
There are six caseworkers for the program who - in part because the services aren't state regulated - can respond directly and immediately to referrals from the community.
The program works to alleviate issues up front that would put children at risk, such as if a single parent with children is about to face homelessness.
"We want to alleviate other things that would put the kids at risk. It doesn't seem right to remove children from their parents because of a lack of housing if the children are safe otherwise," Egly said.
Mark Longenberger, supervisor of community support services, gave the example of a woman who came in six months ago who was gainfully employed but due to lead paint issues with her landlord, essentially was homeless. Longenberger assigned one of his seasoned caseworkers who helped find appropriate housing within a few weeks.
As the goal of the outreach is to prevent formal cases brought to the agency, Egly said, the numbers imply the program works: From July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013, of 198 families and children served by the program, only seven families, or 4 percent, ended up with an open case with the agency.
Meanwhile, the school-based outreach service has six staff working in Lycoming County schools. The staff works to address students' barriers to education, "whether they're coming to school hungry or wearing the same clothes every day, or if there's a messy divorce going on," Longenberger said. The staff also serves as mental health liaisons on each school's Student Assistance Program team and can do mental health assessments to see if the student needs referred to counseling services.
School staff, other students, parents and the students themselves can refer children, and parental permission must be given for outreach services to become involved.
The program was developed to proactively address potential problems and risk factors while small and manageable and connecting children and families to community resources and supports, Egly said.
Chris Herman, Loyalsock Township director of student personnel, said outreach worker Tim Smith's services have proved "invaluable" for students, as he works with them during the day in support of school counseling and intervention services at the middle and high schools. He also reaches out to students and their families after school or in the summer, working with families "to help kids get back in school," she said.
Herman has seen a notable difference in the students, based on the relationships he's built. He provides "tremendous emotional support for kids," she said.
In the 2012-13 school year, the program provided assistance to 1,090 students in Lycoming County. Of them, only 67, or 6 percent, of the students' families ended up with a referral for a more formal assessment and possible services with Children and Youth, Egly said. Truancy rates, for example, were reduced from 5 to 3 percent.
The key, however, is that they connect families and children to support services in the community, Egly emphasized.