Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System
Comments on ACF Proposed Rule
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The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) and its members including state child welfare
agencies are pleased to respond to the proposed CFSR measures outlined in the Federal Register of January 11, 2008.
CWLA acknowledges the commitment of ACF to improving AFCARS. CWLA notes that there are
several positive elements to the proposed AFCARS changes. We are pleased that the proposed
rule includes a longitudinal component. This was recommended by CWLA in its response to a
Federal Register request for comment about AFCARS in June of 2003. Longitudinal data will
allow for a more complete understanding of a child's experience in care and provide invaluable
information for use in decision-making regarding policy and practice in child welfare. We believe
this will enhance quality improvement activities and strengthen front-line practice that will
maximize positive outcomes for children and families. It is believed that the use of episode based
data will provide a clearer picture of stability of children in care and critical elements such as the
effectiveness of permanency planning for children in care. This represents a significant
improvement over the current point-in-time, child based reporting.
CWLA also supports the removal of the requirement to provide summary data. We believe this
information does not contribute meaningful information regarding the child welfare population and
CWLA believes it is consistent with our mission to seek greater coordination between systems
and other agencies that serve child populations. We are also supportive of efforts to collect
greater information and detail on the children in the child welfare population. The changes as
offered in this proposal represent a significant change in the data content and the manner in
which data is collected. As a result it will involve a great investment of time, training and
implementation in order for these proposed changes to be carried out in a way that will yield the
most useful and accurate data possible. Examined in this light, CWLA has great concerns about
certain key aspects of the proposed changes. The major issues center on the way data is
restructured, how best to report on children not included in the child welfare population, the rapid
expansion of data elements, and potential lack of quality data that may result. Finally we have a
concern regarding the use and assessment of penalties. The proposed rule, if implemented
incorrectly or by requiring unsound information will not only create significant burdens for states, it
will fail to provide the type of information that will improve outcomes for children in the child
CWLA is a strong advocate for greater research and information to learn where children are, how
long they are in care, the type of care received, the composition of the families, and outcomes
achieved in the child welfare system. We urge a special caution: the people most responsible for
gathering this data are the same individuals charged with many other duties including managing
the case, attempting to reunify and evaluate the child and family, and documenting the case for
the courts and other mechanisms of oversight. In recent testimony before Congress we
described the challenge in the child welfare workforce. As an example we cited a New York state
Workload Study conducted in 2006 that determined that caseworkers were spending between 35
to 90 minutes in face to face contact with children and their families per case per month. Other
states have reported similar findings both anecdotally and in formal workload studies. This
highlights the often overwhelming demands placed on caseworkers when multiple or conflicting
priorities are instituted, sometimes without fully evaluating their impact on workloads and the
ability to provide effective services to families. In light of recent federal government mandates
requiring face to face visits monthly, something we endorse as a best practice, we feel these
proposed changes must also be evaluated for their impact on the workforce.
There are also important questions in regard to an implementation schedule. These changes
suggest some very significant modifications to state information systems. Some in the child
welfare field have suggested the creation of a workgroup that can help in further developing these
proposed changes. CWLA strongly encourages ACF to consider utilizing a workgroup approach
such as that used in the formation of the NCANDS data collection process. We believe such a
group could be created and could act in an expeditious way so that in the end we do reach the
goals for which there seems to be common agreement.
CWLA wishes to express appreciation for the opportunity to provide feedback on this proposed
rule regarding the critical task of AFCARS data collection and reporting. CWLA once again
commends ACF for its efforts to facilitate a move toward longitudinal data, but as outlined here
the proposed regulations offer a number of challenges and we hope that we can work together
with the states to resolve these issues.
- Restructuring Data [Scope of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting
While CWLA and the states acknowledge that the longitudinal nature of the data will be a benefit
in providing quality services to children and families, the mechanism by which this is to be
accomplished is not clearly articulated in the proposed rule. We believe that this will require a
major reformation of existing data collection systems which will be very time-consuming and
costly on all levels of systems development and management, service administration and service
provision. The proposed changes represent a significant expansion of current data reporting,
both in terms of the amount of data reported and the manner in which it is reported. The shift
from child-files to episode-based reporting is a major change in approach to data recording and
reporting. The paucity of detail in the proposed rule makes it impossible to evaluate the changes
in collection methods required and how the newly structured files would be reported to ACF. The
file size will increase significantly necessitating a change from the current flat file system of data
transmission and possibly re-engineering of existing SACWIS and data collection systems. The
logistics of restructuring the existing SACWIS and other data collection systems will require
additional details from ACF and further research and consideration to determine the feasibility
and cost of reconfiguring existing software to comply with this component. Additionally,
information is needed regarding the expected timeline for completion of this component in order
to adequately assess the reasonableness of this.
The lack of technical specifications regarding how the electronic submission will occur precludes
an assessment of the impact this will have on systems management. The proposed rule
suggests that data transmission can occur via XML without clearly defining the parameters of this.
In fact, the proposed rule acknowledges that some states have encountered barriers in
transferring data via XML. Without specific information regarding the electronic submission, the
extent of the impact is not known. It is clear that this would be a substantial adjustment for most
child welfare agencies and one that has not been thoroughly explored at the federal level.
- [Expanding] Reporting Populations (§1355.41)
While the rule references the inclusion of several additional populations, the level of responsibility
for child welfare agencies is vague and it is not clear how this additional data is to be collected.
This lack of clarity makes it impossible to fully consider the potential ramifications for state child
welfare programs. Our members have noted that this blurring of distinctions between several
populations creates significant philosophical implications that extend well beyond the data
collection process. While the most successful approach to achieving positive outcomes in safety,
permanency, and well-being for children in the foster care system is through cooperation between
agencies and services, it can't be accomplished by merely shifting the burden to child welfare.
Based on the populations identified in the proposed rule, the following comments and concerns
have been raised.
The proposed rule describes a significant expansion of the reporting population, including the
caveat that additional populations may be added at a later date. CWLA and member agencies are
extremely concerned about the feasibility of accomplishing this. While we would like to collect
greater detail on children in care we are concerned that we not convert AFCARS into, for
example, a juvenile justice data collection system. The addition of the populations listed will pose
considerable challenges and represent a major increase in the amount of data to be reported.
Several elements of the proposal for the expansion of the reporting populations are well beyond
the purview of the public child welfare agencies. These include juvenile justice youth in detention
and other facilities (that are not IV-E eligible nor under the child welfare agency's care), children
in psychiatric in-patient settings who are not otherwise involved with the child welfare system, and
children in post-adoption or guardianship placements.
The inclusion of the juvenile justice and mental health populations represents a significant
expansion of the targeted reporting population. Because these children and youth may not be
receiving child welfare case management services currently, the scope and depth of services that
are to be reported in order to comply with the proposed rule will be a significant additional burden.
We believe that, in some cases, the child welfare system will have had no previous contact with a
child/family (such as those families whose interface is through TANF or Medicaid systems).
Expanding the service provision to include necessary elements such as case plan development,
permanency plan development, and related case management will create significant additional
burden on already overextended and often under-funded public child welfare systems. The quality
of the service provision and the associated data will be compromised as a result.
The fact that the rule does not clearly define 'care and responsibility' is problematic for states.
Our members have expressed concern that, depending on the specific population and the type of
information to be collected, reporting on children and youth may present conflicts with or
violations of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations. Particularly
those children and youth involved in substance abuse treatment programs or mental health
treatment programs would be covered under HIPAA guidelines. This potential conflict could
place child welfare agencies in the untenable position of violating state and federal regulations or
having penalties applied due to circumstances beyond the control of the child welfare agencies.
The addition of post-adoption and subsidized guardianship populations not only increases the
workload as previously discussed in our opening comments, but in many states and jurisdictions,
conflicts with state statutes and/or privacy laws. The rule does not acknowledge or address this
potential conflict. The ability of public child welfare systems to collect this information will be
limited also by the fact that many families are likely to refuse to provide the needed information to
Access and Accountability
Additionally, we are concerned that the regulation is written to suggest that the child welfare
agencies will be responsible for the reporting of populations under the jurisdiction of separate
entities outside of child welfare. This will create a situation in which the child welfare agencies
will be dependent on other organizations to proVide the necessary data and will be held
accountable for the reporting, timeliness, and quality of this data.
Finally, the necessity of providing information on these populations is of questionable value in
terms of providing essential services to abused and neglected children or contributing significantly
to the field in evaluating and improving upon existing service provision.
- Data Reporting Requirements [Capturing Greater Detail] (§1355.42 & §1355.43)
Logistics - Level of Oversight
In reviewing the proposed requirements for reporting data, a number of changes are noted that
suggest a fundamental shift in the level of involvement by ACF in states' data collection process.
While CWLA acknowledges the need for quality state and national level data regarding children
involved in the foster care system, the inclusion of elements of data management appear to be
beyond that necessary to ensure accurate and timely data is provided to ACF. For instance, the
proposed rule includes the mandate that removal information be input within 15 days of removal
(a change from the previous 45 day timeliness standard) and that states collect an automatically
generated, non-modifiable transaction date. The 15 day data entry standard is completely
untenable as is the 15 day submission requirement. This suggests a level of oversight by ACF
that goes well beyond that necessary or helpful to states in structuring data collection systems
and reporting data. States noted that there are likely to be situations for which it would be nearly
impossible to meet this proposed deadline. An example of this would be in circumstances where
children are removed within the one to two week time period immediately prior to the submission
date. The result of the 15 day entry requirement would be effectively reduced to a few days if the
data is to be input in time for error clean up and the submission deadline. The quality of the data
submitted will be compromised as a result of the unrealistic deadlines placed upon child welfare
Several other aspects of the data to be reported were identified as problematic for child welfare
agencies. The additional requirement of a family record number poses logistical as well as
practical concerns in reporting and in data file management. As previously discussed, the
proposed changes will require file structure revisions and a conceptually new file transmission
system. The manner in which a 'family' will be defined is not articulated and states noted that
there are differences in how this might be reported based on the individual jurisdictional
definitions of a family. For instance, the reference figure to be used in creating a file number may
be the mother, father, couple, or guardian, depending on the specific state definitions of a family,
circumstances at removal, and the person from whom custody is taken. Families can and do
change over time and a child could move from one family or part of a family to another; when that
happens have we created a new family with a new identifier? Several additional questions arise
from this including how ICPC cases will be handled, reporting for county based systems,
movement of families between states, and family structure issues in cases of divorce or
remarriage. Additionally, the technical aspects of maintaining separate child files and family files
are not clearly described in the proposed rule. Clearly, the files to be provided to ACF will be
increased in size exponentially.
Number of Data Elements
Of great concern is that the federal rule proposes significant changes to some data elements and
an increase in the number of data elements. The current system includes fewer than 100 data
elements while this rule would increase that number to over 300. This increase will require that
caseworkers spend a great deal more time collecting and recording the information. Currently,
caseworkers reportedly spend much of their time completing administrative tasks which limits the
available time for direct contact with children and families. This proposed rule will greatly
exacerbate this challenge by necessitating that caseworkers take a checklist approach to
gathering information due to the sheer volume of data required.
This is counterproductive for child welfare agencies that are struggling with the issue of
maximizing the amount of face-to-face contact time available and necessary to provide quality
case management services to children and families. The Children's Bureau noted the importance
of this element in the evaluation of the first round of Child and Family Service Reviews. In this
analysis, it was found that there is a correlation between worker visits and several outcome
measures for children in care. The proposed rule triples the number of elements to be reported
and requires greater complexity in the reporting of many aspects of outcomes and placement
history. Much of this burden will rest squarely on the shoulders of already overwhelmed
caseworkers. The impact is likely to resonate throughout child welfare agencies that already
struggle to hire, train, and retain dedicated caseworkers.
Specific Data Elements
Questions arise regarding the value of adding to AFCARS many of the proposed data elements.
In several cases, the concerns center around the value added compared to the additional
workload involved in reporting. Concerns noted are as follows.
- Immunization information: caseworkers will often be dependent on the anecdotal
information provided by parents or caregivers and tracking of this will be an on-going
- Educational information: several states noted the challenges in that
- this may not be documentable when children repeated grades prior to removal;
- there may be different and more accurate data on educational well-being;
- last grade completed would be of more value than repeated grades;
- the grade level in school must be evaluated in the larger context of individual
differences, the trauma associated with removal, and other aspects of child
- Special Education eligibility: does not contribute to understanding child welfare outcomes
and the interplay between disabilities and child abuse/neglect,
- Home environment at time of removal: this is problematic with families experiencing the
extreme dysfunction that leads to removal of children,
- Marital status of biological parents at the time of birth of a child will be difficult to collect
and is of questionable value to research on desired outcomes,
- Language spoken in the home: identifying the preferred language in the home would be
- Language level: if this is to be a professional determination, it would be expensive and
- Differentiating race categories may be a challenge in states with diverse populations: in
some large states with significant Hispanic populations families may not choose between
the categories listed and this could result in a large percentage of declined responses.
There are questions about whether these "declines" will be counted as missing data or
whether states who exceed the 10 percent "declines" will be penalized,
- International adoptions: gathering background information would be nearly impossible
when the state agency has had no prior involvement,
- Differentiating between surrenders and relinquishments is not sufficiently defined in the
- Family circumstances at initial permanency plan, twelve month review, and discharge is
not useful information in case management and may be of poor quality,
- Concurrent planning information would add little value in service delivery to the child
- Differentiating level of care (such as therapeutic/treatmenUregular foster care) may affect
the quality of data; families who provide different levels of care to different children in
their home may appear to be placement changes for individual children over time and/or
may create challenges for reporting on siblings placed together under different levels of
- Sibling groups may vary depending on the point in time the information is captured (such
as is the case with the birth of additional children to a parent(s) or with the adoption of
- Adoption of sibling groups would create reporting challenges when a family adopts one
group and later adopts a second set of siblings or adopts sibling groups not biologically
related to one another.
Many of the newly proposed data elements appear to add little to states' ability to monitor and
enhance services for children in care. In some cases, the proposed changes conflict with other
reporting practices and requirements. For instance, the categories of alcohol abuse differ from
data collected for NCANDS. Additional details such as new disability categories and level of
language development create an additional workload burden with limited potential for improving
services to children.
Some of the proposed new data elements are routinely captured in case files which are reviewed
in the course of conducting quality assurance activities and the CFSR process. The proposed
rule suggests that the additional items are useful in tracking child well-being. CWLA asserts that
some elements will have little or no value in tracking well-being. For instance, educational wellbeing
may be more appropriately assessed with the reporting of grade level and changes in
school placement which are unrelated to those ordinary circumstances experienced by children
outside of the child welfare system. This may provide better information than the reporting on the
number of times a grade was repeated. Useful information regarding this and other well-being
items are more appropriately captured through case review and supervisory functions.
CWLA again emphasizes that the reporting of many of these proposed items in AFCARS will not
contribute meaningfully in improving outcomes for children and families. It will, in fact, take away
from time available for caseworkers to provide the face-to-face contact with families that are vital
to the provision of quality services. While CWLA acknowledges that, from a research standpoint,
some of this information will be useful, it would be unjustifiably burdensome to caseworkers who
often manage two to three times the number of cases dictated for best practices. The shift to
longitudinal reporting in and of itself represents a significant improvement over current data
collection efforts. CWLA strongly encourages ACF to limit changes to this component to
maximize the value of the collected data while minimizing the additional burden to caseworkers
and data managers.
- Adoption Assistance & Guardianship subsidy data file elements (§1355.44)
CWLA has great concerns about the inclusion of this population in the reporting of AFCARS data.
As previously mentioned, this creates a conflict with state statutes regarding sealed records for
many of our members. This also represents a workload burden in that the child welfare agency
often may not have on-going contact with these populations. The collection of this data will likely
require significant casework time, at least initially, in order to gather the necessary information. In
some cases, it may require reconstructing case information from closed files and/or interviewing
families not currently under the jurisdiction of the agency in order to accurately report the
AFCARS data. Because child welfare agencies will not have the authority to compel families to
provide this information, data quality would be questionable.
An additional issue is that the on-going collection of these data may require states continue to
have involvement with children and families previously considered to have achieved permanency.
This seems to contradict the current emphasis on permanency and minimizing the necessity for
on-going intervention by public agencies. This signals a shift in philosophy regarding the
provision of services to children in the foster care system. This shift from that of a child-centered
approach to serving families to that of fiscal agent and management is contrary to what we
believe is best practice in the field.
CWLA again asserts that the collection and reporting of this information will be of limited value in
improving outcomes for children and families. Given that there are national studies being
conducted regarding the adoption process and permanency for children in care by various
researching organizations (some of which are funded through other federal agencies), the
inclusion of this will create an unnecessary burden on public child welfare agencies without
contributing meaningful information to the field.
CWLA supports the exclusion from penalties for adoption assistance and guardianship files.
Further remarks on penalties are included in Section 6 of this document.
- Out of home care data file elements [Improving Data Quality] (§1355.43)
CWLA recognizes the value in ensuring that data submitted is accurate and timely. However, the
proposal to exclude details regarding internal consistency checks to 'provide maximum flexibility
to change them as needed' is not adequate to allow states the reasonable opportunity to
comment on this issue. CWLA and its members request additional information be provided in
order to respond.
The proposed rule states that the data file must be in a format that meets ACF specifications.
However, given that these specifications are not clearly articulated in the proposed rule, it is
impossible to evaluate the ability of states to comply with this requirement. CWLA and its
members request that additional information be provided in order to comment on this issue.
The question of past improvement plans is not addressed in this proposed rule. CWLA requests
more information on how these will be handled. Given the significant changes proposed, we
believe that requiring continued efforts on past improvement plans will compromise or likely
conflict with states' efforts to comply with new standards. If states are to continue improvement
activities currently underway, a plan that includes clearly established start and stop dates for
improvement activities is requested.
The proposed change in reporting requirements from within 45 days to 15 days is of concern to
the states. It is unclear as to why ACF shortened this time period especially in light of the new
requirements under the National Youth in Transition Database which sets a 45 day timeframe to
submit data. Since nearly 200 additional data elements are proposed, the shortened time frame
for reporting will add to the burden placed on front-line casework staff and could result in the
submission of questionable information.
- Penalties (§1355.46)
The proposed rule states that the Adoption Promotion Act of 2003 requires penalties for lack of
compliance with the AFCARS standards. Given the vast changes proposed, many states will
likely be impacted by this. We continue to have concerns that a penalty structure that removes
funds from a system we believe to be under-funded will result in poorer outcomes for children and
will undermine efforts to make improvements. The imposition of penalties will further diminish the
ability of states to comply with the standards. Additionally, the proposed rule suggests that the
penalties assessed will be similar regardless of the extent of error. For instance, jf a state
submitted data with an error rate of 11% (1% over the allowable error rate), the penalty would be
the same as if no data were submitted at all. In light of this and the vast number of changes
proposed, ACF should carefully consider what changes are realistic as well as options that may
be available to ensure that states have a reasonable opportunity to comply with the requirements.
A possible alternative is to gradually phase in various aspects of the new requirements. A delay
or grace period in considering penalties will allow ACF and states to negotiate the challenges of
implementing the changes. The proposed changes will involve a monumental cost burden to
states making it particularly critical that they are afforded the opportunity to focus on these
changes without the imposition of penalties.
CWLA proposes an overall change in the way that penalties are assessed in the child welfare
field. We advocate for a system that is modeled more on the approach of the United States
Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its governance of the food stamp program. When penalties
are assessed for errors, a process has been established that allows states to take those penalties
assessed and to re-invest these penalties into making corrections in the system. We feel the
current system is under-funded in a range of areas including prevention at the front end through
foster care. Federal penalties that are assessed will not help address this shortfall. In addition, we
propose as an alternative to penalties a system of enhanced matches or bonuses which would
assist in the implementation of such significant changes.
Cost and Burden
While the vagueness of the rule makes it difficult to estimate the costs associated with the
proposed rule, the states unanimously concurred that their level of effort is grossly
underestimated in terms of time and dollars. The state of Montana has received an estimate for
revising its reporting system from its vendor. Over 14,000 hours are estimated to be needed to
complete the work. This translates to a full-time effort by 9-10 programmers for one year or 5
programmers for two years. The potential overlap with efforts to implement the National Youth in
Transition Database, slated for completion in 2010, is unclear, given the absence of a proposed
CWLA wishes to once again thank ACF for its efforts towards enhancements in data collection,
particularly as this proposed rule advances the nation closer toward collecting longitudinal data.
We believe that the continuous improvement of AFCARs in a way that is both effective and
attainable is of the utmost importance. As you move forward in this process, CWLA and its
members look forward to working with you in a partnership that can achieve the improvements we
all seek and that will ultimately improve the lives of children and families most directly affected by
Child Welfare League of America
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