HARRISBURG — A new kinship navigator program is intended to help grandparents, and other relatives raising children, find help and understand their rights.

It’s needed reform because in many cases family members have been hesitant to contact county child welfare offices out of concern that they’d be inviting unwanted scrutiny from child protective services, said Brian Bornman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators, the statewide group representing child welfare agency heads.

The new helpline, dubbed KinConnector, was authorized by Act 89, signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf last October. The helpline, 1-866-KIN-2111, was announced Thursday by Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller, as part of an update by Wolf Administration officials about efforts to stem the impact of a drug epidemic that in January 2018 prompted the governor to declare a public health emergency.

The state is paying $1.39 million to The Bair Foundation of Pennsylvania, a foster care agency based in Lawrence County, to operate the navigator program through 2021, according to contract documents.

A website of kinship resources is currently in development and will launch later this year.

State officials on Thursday said that drug deaths dropped 18 percent in 2018, but added that while opioid deaths have decreased, officials are now seeing overdoses involving multiple drugs, including stimulants like cocaine and meth.

In addition to the kinship navigator program, state officials also announced that 92 medical and behavioral health professionals in areas of the state hit hard by the opioid epidemic will benefit from a loan forgiveness program funded by the federal government.

Miller said helping grandparents and other relatives is an important way to help people who are volunteering to help make young lives better, in trying circumstances.

“Kinship care guardians often make a selfless choice to care for a young child and ensure that they receive care and support with a person they know and trust, even when processing their own emotions around their family’s situation,” said Miller. “They are navigating a big change, often years after raising their own children. KinConnector will be the bridge that helps families identify resources that can ease this process for the entire kinship family.”

In May, Pennsylvania court officials announced that the number of children placed in kinship custody doubled in the five years leading up to 2017. There were 6,000 children statewide living in court-ordered kinship arrangements in 2017, according to the courts.

The number of children in kinship cases is influenced by the drug epidemic, Bornman said. There’s also been a greater focus on placing children with relatives instead of other foster parents or group homes, whenever possible, he said. Research shows that children generally do better when they’re living with relatives than they do if they are placed with strangers, he said.

Still, the kinship placements set up by the courts “are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Bornman. It’s much more common for grandparents or other relatives to take in children through informal arrangements and in such cases, years may pass before county or state agencies learn about it, he said.

“We may not know until they try to enroll the kids in school or there’s a medical issue,” Bornman said.

For every kinship arrangement known about by government agencies, there are another 20 that are under-the-radar, according to an analysis in the 2017 State of Grandfamilies Annual Report cited in the kinship navigator contract documents.

Based on that estimate, state officials projected there could be about 132,000 Pennsylvania children being raised by kin other than their parents.

Loan forgiveness

The state plans to provide $4.8 million in federal funding to 92 individuals through the state’s Substance Use Disorder Loan Repayment Program. The program repays education loans for health care providers who are providing medical and behavioral health care and treatment for substance use disorder and opioid addiction in areas where there is high opioid use and where there are shortages of health care practitioners.

“By rewarding health care practitioners focused on the opioid crisis with educational loan repayment, we are ensuring these dedicated professionals can focus on care,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in announcing the grants. “We want to make sure that all Pennsylvanians with the disease of addiction have the ability to be treated at a location convenient to them.”

A total of $1.89 million is going to loan forgiveness for 34 medical professionals and $2.89 million is going to help 58 behavioral and mental health practitioners repay their college loans.

Nate Wardle, a Health Department spokesman, said that while the grants have been announced, they haven’t been “fully executed,” so the identities of the recipients weren’t immediately disclosed. The state will post the identities of the recipients online once the grants are actually awarded, he said.

Wardle provided a county-by-county tally showing that 31 of the recipients live in Philadelphia or Allegheny County. The remaining 61 loan forgiveness grants are spread across 22 other counties, including one in Lawrence County and one in Mercer County.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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