Frequently Asked Questions:
Why should Pennsylvania create an independent children’s ombudsperson office?
Annually more than seventy thousand Pennsylvania families receive prevention, intervention and treatment services through the state’s child welfare system. Throughout the course of a year, twenty-six thousand Pennsylvania children and youth are in out-of-home placement, approximately twenty-five percent of these children and youth are placed in group homes or institutions.
Thousands of children and families benefit from child welfare services delivered by public and private providers. These delivered services are often among the keys to preventing child abuse or neglect, strengthening and stabilizing families, as well as promoting permanence and opportunities for older youth transitioning into adulthood.
The child welfare system, however, is complicated and cumbersome lending itself, at times, not to positive outcomes but rather to ineffective communication, inadequate assessment of risk and delayed or inappropriate connection to appropriate services.
Intervention in the life of children and families, as a result of allegations of child abuse or neglect, is one of the most compelling and consequential actions undertaken by the Commonwealth. Decisions made impact the safety, liberty and custody of children and families.
The Commonwealth has the authority to remove children from their own homes and petition for the termination of parental rights.
Often children and youth removed from their homes are placed in foster care, including residential institutions. Such placements can be isolating, impacting the youth’s ability to speak up when they are not safe, have not been connected to needed services including education or have had limited or no access to legal representatives and/or advocates.
Pennsylvania has a comprehensive child welfare system with local, regional and state components and yet it lacks an independent, impartial, and accessible resource to review and respond to complaints and concerns about a child’s safety and the child welfare system overall.
The safety, well-being and even lives of too many children can be undermined despite state investigation and/or intervention and in spite of apparent warnings of shortcomings or wrongdoing within the existing system. Individuals working in private and public programs or institutions, mandated reporters and others invested in the well-being of children and families have no independent avenue to report complaints or concerns.
Independent check on the system heightens the opportunities both to assure a child’s safety and to protect critical rights of children and parents alike. An independent perspective also assists the Commonwealth in the identification of systemic issues impacting a class of children and families.
An ombudsperson will not be a panacea, but rather a new tool in the state’s arsenal to independently assure a child’s safety while adding external scrutiny to the system.
How will the ombudsperson build public confidence, avoid duplication?
Among the most essential elements of an ombudsman office is its independence.
All current mechanisms responding to complaints, to be a repository for concerns about specific decisions for an individual child or a collective community of children exists within the Department of Public Welfare (DPW), the county agencies, and their contractors. DPW’s regional offices and grievance policies of service providers are important tools for quality control, but are internal mechanisms with their own limitations. Also, there is not an obligation to report to the public or the General Assembly. Current practices are also rarely known to or accessible to youth.
An effective ombudsperson requires some discretion in deciding whether to investigate complaints and how to manage the potential for parallel investigations. This discretion will be guided by statute c with a commitment to avoid duplication of effort and resources.
Ultimately children and the child welfare system rely on the generosity, good will and public trust of citizens willing to report suspected child abuse, foster, mentor, and volunteer their time and services for the good of neglected and abused children. An independent watch dog for vulnerable children and families will go a long way to build integrity and strengthen the public trust.
How can the ombudsperson enhance fiscal accountability?
An ombudsman office is an extension of the Commonwealth’s responsibility to all of its citizens.
The vulnerability of the children and families impacted by the child welfare system combined with the substantial public resources dedicated to the system are incentives for the General Assembly to increase the independent oversight and assurances of its effectiveness.
It is imperative that oversight occurs so as to better prevent initial or on-going harm of a child, costly litigation, or ineffective utilization of public resources. In these times of increased fiscal pressure and uncertainty, it is essential the child welfare system operates efficiently and that the General Assembly and public have confidence in the system.
What should be the core components of Pennsylvania’s children’s ombudsperson?
- Accountability, Outreach and Reporting, including to the Public
- Impartial Compliant Investigation Process
- Meaningful Enforcement Powers
- Clear Scope of Jurisdiction
Has legislation for a children’s ombudsperson been introduced in Pennsylvania and what will it cost?
Legislation to create a Children’s Ombudsman or Office of Child Advocate have been introduced and enjoyed some degree of legislative action in previous sessions. Efforts were bolstered by the 2002 Joint State Government Commission’s Advisory Committee on Services to Children and Youth recommendations. In 2008, calls for an ombudsperson were elevated by the findings and recommendations of a Philadelphia Grand Jury, a commitment of DPW Secretary Estelle Richman to convene a statewide workgroup, increased media scrutiny, and the POCC’s decision to make this a top priority in 2009.
Recently and independent of the DPW workgroup, House Bill 788 has been introduced. Funding for an Ombudsperson was not included in the proposed 2009-2010 budget. Also DPW continues to convene its workgroup with a goal of unifying stakeholders around a specific consensus legislative proposal.
Research from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reveals that states with Children’s Ombudsman accomplish their goals with budgets ranging from $400,000 (6 staff) to $2.5 million (12 staff).
The POCC is supportive of Pennsylvania implementing a Children’s Ombudsperson outside the creation of an office in state government. Maine operates its Ombudsman via a contract at an annual cost of approximately $185,000.
What are the typical roles of a children’s ombudsman office?
- Receive Complaints from a wide array of individuals, including youth, concerned about a child’s safety or when questions have been raised about the interventions offered to the child and family.
- Investigate Selected Complaints from aggrieved individuals that raise serious concerns about the health and safety of a child or the services delivered or denied to a family.
- Make Recommendations to Resolve Complaints to the Department responsible for overseeing the child welfare system and/or the Governor so that appropriate action and follow-up occurs.
- Inform and Guide individuals on the mechanisms for conflict resolution that exist within the system and provide information and referral where appropriate.
- Inform and Make Recommendations to the General Assembly regarding systemic problems and proposed responses identified.
- Issue Regular Reports to the Public and the General Assembly so that accountability to the public in the operation of the child welfare system is maintained.
What types of calls might trigger an investigation or intervention by the ombudsperson?
The ombudsman will investigate cases involving serious concerns about child safety and well-being; existing mechanisms for conflict or grievance resolutions have been ineffective or unresponsive; as well as issues identified by statute as priority focus areas. Examples might include:
- A dependent child or youth has limited or no access to her guardian ad litem.
- A mandated reporter cites repeated calls to ChildLine yet no apparent action has resulted from her numerous calls of concern.
- A parent calls to complain that she is not being provided the court-ordered in-home services and the child welfare agency will not respond to her concerns.
- A youth in an institution fears for her safety or is being denied access to necessary services like education.
- A child has been removed from their home, placed in a residential facility with limited or no access to a child welfare worker for months.
- A person disputes a substantiated case of abuse and the administrative appeals process required has been significantly delayed, impacting the person’s reconnection with their children and/or employment.
Prepared March 2009