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Unsafe and Uneducated: New Report Reveals Dangers for Youth in Pennsylvania Foster Care

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Lack of oversight of residential facilities poses serious risks to vulnerable children, including dangerous conditions and lack of educational opportunities

Contact: Daniel Kessel, 646-216-3343, dkessel@childrensrights.org

(HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA) – A new report released today by Children’s Rights and the Education Law Center-PA raises serious concerns about the safety of Pennsylvania’s residential placements for youth in foster care and the quality of education provided there. The report, Unsafe and Uneducated: Indifference to Dangers in Pennsylvania’s Residential Child Welfare Facilities, is available here.

In 2017, more than 3,700 youth in Pennsylvania foster care resided in residential facilities (ranging from small group homes to large institutions). Furthermore, 47% of youth aged 14-21 in Pennsylvania foster care lived in these facilities, compared to 34% nationwide. As the report details, because of a lack of adequate oversight by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA-DHS), these facilities expose children to harmful treatment. Children in these facilities frequently suffer verbal, physical, and sexual abuse and mistreatment from staff and other children. Many children are continually subjected to unsafe practices, such as the inappropriate use of restraints, resulting in injury and, in some cases, hospitalization. PA-DHS has continued to place children in facilities with known, repeated, and dangerous violations, even where no adequate plan of correction is in place.

Meanwhile, the majority of children in residential facilities attend “on-grounds” schools located at the residential facilities that similarly lack proper oversight from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). These on-grounds schools typically offer inferior education with curriculum far below grade level, largely ignoring the heightened learning needs of these students.

“Too many residential facilities in Pennsylvania are now more dangerous than the unsafe environments from which these children were removed in the first place,” said co-author Elissa Glucksman Hyne, Senior Policy Analyst at Children’s Rights. “When facilities fail to guarantee the safety of the children entrusted to their care, PA-DHS must act to hold these facilities accountable rather than continuing to ignore reports of violence and mistreatment.”

Highlights from the report include:

  • Children in these residential facilities were physically maltreated 156 times between May 2010 and May 2018, including 114 times by staff, based on public reporting alone;
  • 44% of reviewed residential facilities had repeat violations for physical or sexual abuse by staff or other children;
  • Children in residential facilities were inappropriately restrained 92 times, which led to a documented injury to the child 28 times;
  • Laws protecting the right of children in foster care to enroll in public schools while living at residential facilities are often ignored;

The report also presents data from regional studies about the educational deficiencies of on-grounds schools that the vast majority of children at these facilities attend, including that:

  • Less than half of children earn high school credits while in a residential facility placement;
  • Fewer than 25% of youth with learning disabilities received special education services while in placement; and
  • Only 9% of children earned a GED or high school diploma, with only 2% enrolling in post-secondary education.

“Pennsylvania’s residential facilities have not only put these children in harm’s way, but have severely undermined their educational opportunities and in many cases deprived them of a meaningful education,” said co-author Maura McInerney, Legal Director of the Education Law Center. “Pennsylvania is failing our most vulnerable children, and PA-DHS and PDE must work together to fix this. Being placed in a residential facility should not deprive children in foster care of the quality education to which they are legally entitled and which they desperately need to succeed in life.”

The report recommends that PA-DHS

  • Respond to documented violations in a timely, efficient manner;
  • Ensure that residential facility staff are adequately trained to work with the child welfare population; and
  • Ensure that children in foster care are placed in residential facilities only if their needs cannot be met with community-based services.

The report also recommends that PDE make the following changes to improve educational outcomes for children at on-grounds schools:

  • Ensure that all students have access to public schools while in placement in accordance with their legal entitlement;
  • Adopt clear standards for on-grounds schools through licensing requirements that require curriculums to align with public school and keep children on track to graduate;
  • Rigorously monitor all on-grounds schools with on-site visits and increased reporting requirements; do not renew licenses for schools that fail to provide a quality education;
  • Ensure that all children with disabilities in residential placement receive proper evaluations and services and are educated in the least restrictive environment.

The report also calls for courts and child welfare agencies that contract with residential providers to demand more rigorous education standards and that the state legislature ensure access to educational opportunities for children in foster care.

Read the report here.

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About Children’s Rights: Fighting to transform America’s failing child welfare, juvenile justice, education and healthcare systems is one of the most important social justice movements of our time. Through strategic advocacy and legal action, Children’s Rights holds state governments accountable to America’s most vulnerable children. A national watchdog organization since 1995, Children’s Rights fights to protect and defend the rights of young people, because we believe that children have the right to the best possible futures. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.

About the Education Law Center: The Education Law Center-PA (ELC) is a nonprofit, legal advocacy organization with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information, visit elc-pa.org or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

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