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Pa.'s disadvantaged children have a clear road ahead

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Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a Commonwealth Court ruling that removed a 5-year-old policy that stood as a roadblock between our state's most vulnerable children and the service providers who could help them.

Implemented by the Office of Children, Youth and Families of the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, the now-illegal policy gave the state agency unprecedented power to dictate the rates counties could pay private youth-services providers.

The OCYF's manipulative strategy fostered an atmosphere of hostility, disrupting a healthy system of private providers that, for many years, had offered county agencies a wide range of quality, cost-effective service choices to help disadvantaged children.

The policy undermined the existing fair market approach by imposing centralized state control. Cumbersome procedures delayed annual county contracts with service providers for as long as a year or more, depriving agencies of funds to pay their dedicated staff, curtailing urgently needed services for children and their families and driving some long-standing nonprofit programs out of business.

After suffering at the hands of this illegal process for five years, Pennsylvania's disadvantaged children have a clear road ahead. They can once again benefit from a healthy partnership between counties and hundreds of private agencies delivering a wide range of services — from day treatment and therapeutic family care to residential programs.

As Pennsylvania law mandates, county agencies should be free to make their own choices based on local needs. This system ensures reasonable rates through healthy competition. If counties have concerns about a provider's rates or approach, they simply choose another provider.

Pennsylvania's private youth-services providers are a healthy alternative to government-run facilities for children who need more acute care and guidance to become productive members of our communities. Their cost-effective services allow counties the flexibility of choosing from a robust continuum of care at a better cost to taxpayers.

NHS Human Services is a nonprofit multiservice agency that helps hundreds of disadvantaged, neglected and abused children each year in Harrisburg and the surrounding area. Without such programs, these children would never receive the chance to reach their full potential. Under OCYF's illegal process, NHS struggled to retain good staff and maintain the quality of its programs. Thanks to the court's decision, NHS and many nonprofits like it have the opportunity to shed financial distress and focus their full attention on helping Pennsylvania's most vulnerable children.

The court's decision gives Pennsylvania the opportunity to restore a balanced system by engaging all stakeholders. The end of this misguided era should serve as a wake-up call for us all. Our state government should never again stand in the way of children getting the help they need and deserve.

Youth Services Alliance of Pennsylvania hopes that the Corbett administration and every member of the General Assembly will join us in welcoming a new era in which the needs of our children — not bureaucratic power grabs — come first.

Helping children who are abused, neglected or delinquent is hard work, but it's also one of the most important things we can do to strengthen our communities. When there is collaboration and respect among the state, counties, providers, schools and families, our children win.

Craig Adamson, Ph.D., is the president of Youth Services Alliance of PA, executive director of Community Service Foundation and an assistant professor at the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

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