HOLLIDAYSBURG - Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva tells the story of an older gentleman who was seeking information about his past.
Adopted as a child, he never knew his parents but was always curious to know where he came from.
"I get requests from people monthly. They want to know, 'Where do I come from? Do I look like Mom and Dad?'" she said.
Information available from the courts, such as "Your mother was 21 years old and unmarried," doesn't answer the questions, Kopriva said.
The man eventually traced his birth family by cross-referencing various records and news articles. He found where his father, by then deceased, had lived.
When visiting his dad's former address, however, he learned something that made him very happy: A person told him he laughed just like his father.
Kopriva said that experience drove home the importance people place on knowing their roots.
"We all have the desire to be connected," she said.
Kopriva said that example illustrates what she called a "revolution" in the way the courts and social welfare agencies view child care, particularly when it comes to removing children from their homes.
Foster care of today is not the foster care of years past. Children taken from their homes will no longer lose their roots even if they are placed for adoption, or as the judge calls it, "permanency."
What is happening in Blair County is different and unique, and local leaders like Kopriva; Mary Anne Burger, director of Blair County Children, Youth and Families; and Nancy Bernecky, a veteran caseworker now in charge of finding and approving foster homes and training foster parents in Blair County, have transitioned into the new way of doing things.
Blair County has taken its lead from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Justice Max Baer.
Baer, who was a juvenile court judge in Allegheny County before taking his seat on the state's highest court, handled thousands of cases involving abused and neglected children.
He was a leader in the creation of the Office of Children & Families in the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, and a leader in preparing a court "Benchbook" that suggests to Pennsylvania judges ways to ensure children are safe, and if possible, not far removed from that important connection to their parents and their extended families.
Baer called the Benchbook "a historic effort that has as its goal to place abused and neglected children in safe, permanent and loving homes."
Sandra Moore, director the office of Children & Families in the Courts, said the Supreme Court, through its Benchbook, has not mandated judges to implement new ways of doing things.
"When you tell people to do it, they might do it, but not enthusiastically," she said.
Lack of enthusiasm, however, is not a problem in Blair County, Moore said, as both Burger and Kopriva are part of local, regional and state "children's roundtables" that are slowly bringing about change.
"This is about what is best for children, not what's good for adults," Moore explained.
Abuse and neglect in Blair County, Pennsylvania and across the country are, sadly, an everyday event.
Altoona police were recently called to a home on the 500 block of Fourth Avenue because a mom and her boyfriend were passed out, allegedly from drug and alcohol abuse.
Upstairs, police found five children living in filthy conditions.
The very next day, a 39-year-old man was sentenced by Blair County Judge Hiram A. Carpenter to a maximum of eight years in state prison for sexually abusing a child from the time she was 10 years of age until she was a junior in high school.
She was too frightened to tell of the abuse, noting the man had picked her up by the neck and threatened her life if she ever told. She did tell within months of leaving home.
In Blair County last year, Blair County Children, Youth & Families received 360 complaints of possible abuse and neglect, of which 39 were substantiated, which means the evidence was irrefutable, and Blair County reported one near-death, an unsupervised child injured in a fall.
The state's 2011 report on child abuse listed more than 24,000 reports of abuse and neglect, 3,408 of them substantiated. There were 34 child deaths due to abuse and neglect and 41 near-deaths.
Children were burned, raped, starved and beaten. Forty-six suffered skull fractures. Six were used for prostitution, according to the state report.
These statistics taken as a whole are shocking, and, represent why the first priority of the Supreme Court Office of Children & Families in the Courts, as well as Burger and her agency, is "safety first."
"Our job is not to take kids out of their homes," said Burger, but she added that there are times when that must happen for the children's safety.
When that occurs, CYF turns to people like Tammie and Denver Dick of East Freedom and Theresa Funtal and Barry Noel of Altoona.
These are foster parents, also called resource parents, whose homes are open any time day or night to accept children in need of care.
Tammie Dick said she and her husband have been resource parents for eight years and she can't even estimate the number of children who have been placed with her.
Earlier this year, she said they were out to dinner when they received a call from child welfare asking, "Can you take four children?"
The four children had to be removed from their family.
"We go to a great extent to keep siblings together," Bernecky said.
She said the children are usually in shock, being separated from their mother and father, and if they are separated from their brothers and sisters, she said they question what they did wrong to end up with no family.
Asking a resource family to take four children, when they already have two adopted children and a foster care baby, is a big order.
When the couple agreed to take the four siblings, that meant there were seven children, all younger than 7 years old, in their home.
Tammie Dick said that lasted until just a couple weeks ago, when the four siblings were reunited with their family.
Caring for so many youngsters was a challenge, said Bernecky. The county's case aides chipped in to help take the kids to their doctors' appointments.
"It was like we had a village [to care for the children]," she said.
As a resource parent, Tammie Dick went through six hours of training provided by Bernecky and 80 hours of Family Development Training offered by Kidspeace National Center of Duncansville, a private agency that also provides foster care and other services to the Blair County Agency.
That training emphasizes the new way of doing things, and the Dick family fully supports the effort to keep the children connected to each other and to their families.
In the past, a mother and father whose child was placed in foster care visited with the youngster every two weeks.
Tammie Dick said the first thing she does now is meet with the natural parent, referred to the "bio parent."
The foster parent talks to the bio parent about the child to learn what he likes to eat, what his schedule is, what his favorite toys are and if he has allergies, for example,
In addition, if it is safe, the child's mother may visit the foster home so she knows the child is being cared for.
The two families can become close, with Tammie Dick mentoring the parent in an effort to help her address the reasons why the child was removed from her care in the first place.
She said the child welfare caseworker and the foster parent identify the strengths a parent has and they work to grow that strength as well as set goals with the parents to help reunification.
"I get along with her. She is working ... she's made some good choices," said Tammie Dick about the mother of her foster child.
Moms and dads whose children have been removed are "are not awful people," Tammie Dick said.
They are often people suffering from poverty, drug addiction or mental problems.
"They are people who struggle and don't have a system around them," she said. "I'm proud of what I do."
She added the toughest part of her job comes when the children she has been caring for are removed from her home.
She feels the grief and loss the children feel when they are removed from their parents.
'I love children'
Funtal and Noel have been foster parents for nine years.
"I like the hustle and bustle of having children around," Funtal said.
Although she has two grown sons, she said becoming a resource parent was life-changing, so much so that she and her husband ended up adopting four of their foster children.
In addition, she also has a foster baby whose natural mother is very young. The two women are close, and the younger woman calls Funtal "Mom."
Funtal and Noel took the younger woman on vacation with them this year, so she could also spend time with her child.
And on Mother's Day, she made sure the biological mother received a card from her child.
Funtal said she believed in contacting the birth parents even before the state and Blair County espoused that idea.
Contact between the resource family and the natural parents "really helps the child. They don't lose that bond," she explained. "They don't pit us against each other and it really helps the child to adapt."
Bernecky explained that resource parents are taught to recognize the strengths of a family, even something as simple as noting that a mother has ample food in the house.
Another point is to realize that when a child is taken from his family, the child and the parents may experience anger, part of what she calls "grief and loss."
Contacting the parents enables them to be part of the solution. The parents can see the child is being taken care of and then they can work on their own problems.
Burger said Blair County has many agencies, known as service providers, and they are all on the same page, working toward reuniting the child and family or finding a permanent home for the child.
Funtal said she tries different ways to make a connection. She writes to the parents telling them the progress their child is making and what the child does each week.
Sometimes this attempt to maintain a bond between child and family doesn't work out.
"Some parents won't come around at all. I still write letters letting them know what the child is doing," she said. "I love children. People tease me, saying I'm the old lady in the shoe. They say the children are a challenge. They [the children] are not challenging to me. I love it."
Work to be done
Sandra Moore, director of the Supreme Court's Office of Children & Families in the Courts, is a former director of child welfare and human services for Dauphin County.
She said that in the 1980s, the foster care system was deluged with children. Foster care was supposed to be a temporary move to give parents time to address their issues.
Instead, she said, "The kids came in and stayed for years and years."
According to the state's Benchbook, 1,000 children annually go from foster care to adulthood.
The research concluded that the children who stay in the system "do considerably poorer in transitioning to adulthood than peers who have no child welfare environment."
These children, the state claimed, are less likely to complete high school or higher education. They were less likely to be employed than children from a permanent home. They also had a higher rate of physical and mental health problems and substance abuse.
Kopriva used a different analogy: If you transplant a tree, you don't cut its roots or the tree won't grow. Moving from foster home to foster home cuts the child's roots, she explained.
The old philosophy was that "children had to be rescued from their families" and placed in a better environment.
"The data has indicated we were not always right about that," Kopriva said.
This is why there has been a new emphasis on maintaining a child's roots and placing him in a permanent home.
"Many people feel foster care was a good thing. The perception now has flipped to the other side. We ask how do we reduce trauma and keep the kids safe?" she said.
To address the problem, the new Office of Children & Families in The Courts has created children's roundtables in each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.
The roundtables are led by the president judge in each county, and they address issues such as family group decision-making, which means involving family members in finding their own solutions to problems; finding "healthy" family members who can care for a child; addressing a child's sense of loss; and conducting a review of a child's status every three months.
The county roundtables present their ideas on the issues to five regional roundtables. Once a year, the state roundtable meets to address the issues.
Burger is part of the state roundtable, which appoints committees to address the issues. One of them is the possible excessive use of medication for foster children.
Moore said foster children have experienced abuse and neglect, which may be the root of their emotional problems rather than psychological disorders.
Other issues being studied are how to handle visitation between a biological mother and her baby or an incarcerated parent and her child.
The effort to reduce the number of children in foster homes and place them in permanent homes seems to be working, said Steve Schell, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
When the office was created six years ago, more than 20,000 children were in foster care. That number has been reduced by more than 7,000, Shell said.
Bernecky said she is responsible for 22 resource homes but other agencies, including Kidspeace; Arrow Child and Family Ministries, Altoona; Northwestern Human Services, Hollidaysburg; and the Bair Foundation of Pennsylvania, Altoona, also provide foster care services.
She said the effort to bridge the gap - keeping children connected to their families -- "is not an end-all, be-all, but I feel it is strengthening the community.
"Little by little, we are growing roots for change. This is what foster care is today," Bernecky said.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.