May 8, 2023 - News

Many Pennsylvania kids sent to foster care over behavior problems

Illustration of a lone teddy bear.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Pennsylvania is seeing fewer older youth in foster care — but experts say too many are still entering the system because of behavioral issues compared to the rest of the country.

Driving the news: More than half (53%) aged 14 and up who entered state foster care in 2021 did so because of "behavioral problems" compared with 30% nationally, says a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

  • The issues can range from normal adolescent "acting out" to more pressing mental instability problems, experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: Kids who are removed from their family face life-altering consequences. They tend to be far less likely than peers in the general population to find stable housing and employment, or to enroll in post-high school education or training, per the study.

Zoom in: Most youth in the U.S. were removed from their homes due to neglect, not behavioral issues.

  • But in Pennsylvania, county agencies don't refer enough children to mental health professionals, experts say, and the work falls to caseworkers, who aren't always versed in the services available for kids. On top of that, the pandemic exacerbated mental health struggles for many youngsters.

What they’re saying: Most behavioral problems don’t require foster care placements and can instead be addressed with counseling or community programs, Rachael Miller, policy director at Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, tells Axios.

  • "It’s important to remember that when a child is removed from their parents or caregiver, they lose everything," she says. "They lose their home, their community, their school, their culture."

Context: Child welfare workers are overburdened with cases. Anecdotally, Miller has heard of Pennsylvania counties experiencing staff shortages as high as 40-60%, impacting the quality of services provided to families.

  • "They’re overworked, have unmanageable caseloads, and can barely complete the minimum requirements of their work," she says.

In Philly proper, children who've been removed from their homes have spent weeks and even months sleeping in the city health department's conference rooms — "a hotel of last resort," as an Inquirer investigation last year described it — because workers struggle to find placements for everyone in the system.

By the numbers: Forty percent of Pennsylvania youth who entered foster care in 2021 were white, 38% were Black — down from 48% in 2006 — and 14% were Hispanic or Latino, per the Casey Foundation.

  • 1 bright spot: In 2021, more youth in the state (30%) were returned to family after entering foster care compared to 2006 (11%).

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