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Panel Examines Federal and State Oversight of Child Welfare Programs

On January 28, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources heard testimony from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and 18 witnesses during its review of federal and state oversight of child welfare programs. This is the third in a series of briefings to examine the national child welfare system. Previous hearings were held in November 2003 (see The Source, 11/7/03 and 11/21/03).

In a press release announcing the hearing, Chair Wally Herger (R-CA) stated, “It is critical that we do all we can to ensure the safety of children. When the very systems intended to protect these children fail to defend them from continued abuse or neglect, we must ask hard questions about what more needs to be done.”

Testifying on behalf of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at HHS, Assistant Secretary Wade Horn summarized the principle mechanisms for federal oversight of child welfare programs. They include Title IV-E Eligibility Reviews that “focus on whether a child meets the statutory eligibility requirements for foster care maintenance payments;” the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System that “collects case level information on all children under the care of the state in foster care and those children adopted from the state public child welfare system;” reviews of states’ Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS); and the Child and Family Services Review that is designed “to ensure that state child welfare agency practices are in conformity with federal child welfare requirements, to determine what is actually happening to children and families as they are engaged in state child welfare services, and to assist states with enhancing their capacity to help children and families involved with the child welfare system achieve positive outcomes.”

Dr. Horn explained that, using these tools, ACF reviewed 46 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia and found that: 1) one of the weakest areas in state performance is achieving a permanent outcome (adoption for foster care children) in a timely manner; 2) there is a strong correlation between frequent caseworker visits with children and indicators of child well-being; and 3) there are differences in the level of services provided to intact families, as opposed to families whose children are in foster care, often with less attention to the intact families.

Before concluding, Dr. Horn highlighted the Administration’s new proposal, the Child Welfare Program Option “that would allow states to choose a flexible, alternative financing structure over the current Title IV-E foster care entitlement program.” Under the proposal, states “would be able to use funds for foster care payments, prevention activities, permanency efforts, case management, administrative activities, training for child welfare staff and other services related to child welfare activities,” he explained. Dr. Horn also indicated that the Administration would support full funding, $505 million, for the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program.

Citing New York City’s success in reducing the number of children in foster care, Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner William Bell explained how the federal government could assist states and urban localities to improve their child welfare programs. He suggested that 1) federal financing flexibility and increased funding are needed to enhance resources for services and achieve improved outcomes for children; 2) reform must consider large urban jurisdictions, which are currently prohibited from applying for Title IV-E waivers; 3) a child’s eligibility for Title IV-E foster care payments should no longer be linked to the child’s eligibility for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program as it existed prior to July 16, 1996; 4) Title IV-E should support subsidized kinship guardianship; 5) federal funding should support training for private and contracted child protective staff; 6) federal funding for mental health, medical, and substance abuse treatment services should be increased; and 7) federal funding should support transitional and support services for teens leaving foster care. On the last point, Commissioner Bell cited a study that found “…within 12 to 18 months of aging out of foster care, 50 percent [of teens] are unemployed and 37 percent have not finished high school…19 percent of the young women have given birth; 33 percent are receiving some form of public assistance; and 27 percent of males and 10 [percent] of females have been incarcerated or have had some encounter with the criminal justice system.”

In addition to funding flexibility, Thomas Atwood of the National Council for Adoption provided a number of other policy suggestions for the subcommittee. He said that the federal government should establish an effective accountability system for state family courts; enforce state compliance of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, including the requirement to initiate court proceedings to terminate parental rights when the child has been in foster care 15 out of the previous 22 months; establish uniform caseload standards for all states; and collaborate with the private sector to recruit parents to adopt children out of foster care. Referring to the subcommittee’s first hearing that examined a highly publicized child abuse case in New Jersey, Mr. Atwood provided a few words of caution, “It is important to keep in mind, however, that the main problem facing our child welfare system, by far, is the suffering of children languishing in foster care, not the rare case of abusive adoptive parents.”

Testifying on behalf of the Alliance for Children and Families, Dr. Curtis Mooney agreed with many of the recommendations made by Mr. Atwood, but argued, “Prevention, family-based services and successful reunification of families should be our highest priority.”

Thomas Birch of the National Child Abuse Coalition pointed out that the United States has “a spending gap…of almost $13 billion in services to prevent child abuse and to intervene on behalf of children known to the child protection system.” Arguing for more funding to prevent child abuse, Mr. Birch cited research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that shows “…adult victims of child maltreatment are more likely to engage in early first intercourse, have an unintended pregnancy, have high lifetime numbers of sexual partners, and suffer from depression and suicide attempts.” He added, “We know that women who suffered serious assaults in childhood experience more episodes of depression, post-traumatic stress, and substance abuse, demonstrating a relationship between childhood trauma and adult psychopathology, as well as links between childhood neglect and later alcohol problems in women.” Furthermore, “…looking at the consequences of child maltreatment, we find that among homeless people, many of them, especially homeless women, reported serious family problems or a history of sexual or physical abuse as children that predisposed them to homelessness as adults,” Mr. Birch stated.

Before concluding the hearing, the subcommittee heard testimony from three mothers whose children were all victims of the foster care system. Ms. Marie O’Hara of New Jersey stated, “I would like to begin by suggesting, that more…than increased funding, quality information systems, and additional cell phones are needed to ensure the safety and well-being of our nation’s most valuable and most vulnerable resource our children.”

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