WILKES-BARRE ‚?? Addicted to drugs and alcohol, the 44-year-old Hazleton woman said she knew she had to get clean or she‚??d likely lose her children forever.
Luzerne County Children and Youth Services had removed her son and daughter, ages 15 and 7, after neighbors found the younger child home alone.
With the help of intensive therapy programs, the woman, who asked not to be identified to protect her children‚??s privacy, regained custody within six months.
‚??In the beginning I was very rebellious. I felt like ‚??I don‚??t have time for this,‚?? ‚?Ě she said.
‚??Once we sobered up, we came to realize they were only there to help us. If we continued down the wrong path they would have taken the kids.‚?Ě
Child welfare officials say the woman‚??s case exemplifies a renewed commitment by agencies statewide to provide intensive services to keep families together whenever possible.
But the agencies are equally committed to acting more swiftly to terminate parents‚?? rights if they don‚??t comply with the treatment and services offered, officials say.
The result has been a significant reduction in the number of children in foster care in the state and Luzerne County as of last year.
Statewide the number of children in foster care placement has decreased by 30.3 percent since 2007, according to the state Department of Public Welfare.
The reduction is even more marked in Luzerne County, which saw placements drop from 766 in March 2009, to 421 as of September 2011 ‚?? a 45 percent decrease.
Under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, child welfare agencies are required ‚?? with limited exceptions ‚?? to seek to terminate parents‚?? rights if the child has been in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months.
Frank Castano, executive director of Luzerne County Children and Youth, and Joanita Salla, deputy director, said the agency makes every effort to assist parents, but it is equally determined to terminate their rights if they don‚??t progress.
‚??We are frontloading the system with services so that parents have every opportunity to succeed,‚?Ě Salla said. ‚??By the time we reach 15 months we are ready to say this child can go home or needs a different form of permanency.‚?Ě
Luzerne County‚??s efforts were lauded by DPW in its latest state inspection report. The report, which examined cases from December 2011 to January 2012, credits the agency with implementing several intensive programs that help families resolve problems that led to the child‚??s placement.
It also commends the agency for its increased placement of children with family members ‚?? known as kinship care ‚?? and its success in finalizing adoptions of foster youth.
That resulted in 391 children who were in foster care finding permanent homes in 2011, including 181 children who were reunified with their parents and 39 who were discharged to the care of a relative.
The agency also processed significantly more adoptions in 2011, with 128 being finalized. That compares to 101 in 2010 and 108 in 2009.
‚??All these tings have come together at the same time and produced, in my opinion, dramatic results,‚?Ě Salla said.
Salla and Castano credited the agency‚??s success in reducing placements to its participation in an initiative launched in 2008 by the National Governors Association that seeks to reduce the number of children in foster care. Luzerne County was among 16 counties in Pennsylvania that volunteered.
‚??We had to put together a plan of how we could safely reduce placements,‚?Ě Castano said. ‚??It was not just reducing placements. We had to do it in a safe manner. That was the challenge.‚?Ě
The agency responded by implementing programs like Family Group Decision Making.
The program brings other family members or friends of the family into the service plan. They meet to discuss issues that led to the child‚??s placement and the steps they need to take as a family to address them.
‚??It‚??s an engagement of other family members who come together to create a plan that‚??s going to work for that family. They take responsibility for each other,‚?Ě Salla said.
Salla said the program has had tremendous success.
‚??When the family makes the plan they are more likely to abide by it and see it through to a good conclusion,‚?Ě she said.
The agency also has emphasized placing children with family members, as opposed to the traditional foster care setup involving strangers.
‚??The data indicates if you place a child with family, you are going to find permanency for that child a heck of a lot quicker than if they went into regular foster care,‚?Ě Castano said.
Part of that success is attributed to the stability family members provide a child. Under traditional foster care arrangements, children are much more likely to move among several different foster homes, Salla said.
‚??We‚??ve found that with kinship care, they are not likely to move at all,‚?Ě Salla said. ‚??Every time a child moves there is emotional trauma.‚?Ě
The Hazleton mother is one of the success stories.
The agency tailored a service plan for her with the help of her parents, who took custody of her daughter while she was in treatment. Her son stayed with his biological father.
After getting past the initial resistance, the woman said she took part in numerous services offered, including drug and alcohol counseling and parenting classes.
‚??I was in everything possible,‚?Ě she said. ‚??It‚??s very time consuming, but you gotta do it if you want your child back.‚?Ě