Helping Troubled Families Keep Their Kids

Once children enter the foster care system, they often get bounced around from home to home. To avoid that, one Pennsylvania county has come up with a novel way to help children stay out of the system in the first place.

Allegheny County helps families address the issues that contribute to abuse or neglect: chronic unemployment, mental illness and substance abuse.

In Kimberlee Henry's case, the state threatened to take her four children away because of allegations of neglect.

"Our first thought is, 'Oh my god, not my kids,'" Henry said. "It's like riding a roller coaster. You're coming down a hill and your stomach's in your throat."

County officials were concerned because three of the boys had missed more than a month of school because of head lice.

Henry said her husband, a painter, had been injured and unable to work for several months, and they couldn't afford to deal with the problem.

"We were having financial problems and there were just weeks they'd send the kids home with it that I couldn't afford to buy the medication," she said.

In many communities across the country, the children would have been placed in foster care.

"Going with a foster family, but … still knowing who your real family was, it would just devastate you," said 12-year-old Shane Henry.

Keeping the Kids at Home

In Allegheny County, social workers fight to keep families together. When the Henry family met with social workers, one noted the family's strengths.

"One of the first strengths that I see with this family is that mother and father have been married for over 20 years," said social worker Calvin Hornsby.

"If you give them some opportunities, if you give them some assistance, they rise to the occasion," said Marc Cherna, the director of the Allegheny Department of Human Services.

They made sure the Henrys were able to get their children medication, and helped the father obtain disability payments.

Using this approach, the county has made progress and reduced the number of children in foster care by more than 23 percent in the last decade. Thousands of children were kept out of foster care.

And they have been able to keep the children safe.

A decade ago, the county was losing four to eight children each year to abuse and neglect. But now, it's been four years since a child has died in the system.

Helping families keep their children also saves money, as placing a child in foster care in Allegheny County costs $25,000 a year. Providing intensive support to a family is $10,000 or less.

Success is based on a simple notion, according to Hornsby. As he puts it: "Parents love their children no matter what the situation."

The Henry story ends with the children back in school, and happy at home with their parents.