Testimony of Patricia Wilson, Director, CWLA Southern Regional Office, before the House Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means for the Hearing to Examine Child Welfare Reform Proposals
July 13, 2004
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My name is Patricia Wilson. I am the Director of the Child Welfare League of America's (CWLA) Southern Regional Office. CWLA welcomes the opportunity to offer testimony on behalf of our 1,000 public and private nonprofit child-serving member agencies nationwide as part of this hearing to examine child welfare reform.
I am going to speak to you today from a perspective that I have gained from 30 years of working in child welfare. I have been fortunate during my career to have worked as a:
- National consultant during which time I have had in-depth working relationships with a number of state child welfare programs and have been engaged in numerous projects involving the financing of states' child welfare systems;
- State child welfare administrator in the Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children with responsibility for a broad range of federally funded child welfare programs;
- Child welfare program manager and supervisor at the county level; and
- Caseworker, who investigated abuse and neglect complaints, provided services to children in need of protection as well as their families, and managed foster care and adoption cases.
The Need for Reform
CWLA recognizes that the current child welfare system does not protect all children adequately. Over the past several months the need for reform of our child welfare system has gained some needed attention nationwide. In part, this attention is the result of efforts this Subcommittee has made through a series of hearings beginning last fall. We appreciate these efforts and the attention of the members of this Subcommittee, and in particular, the attention to this matter by Chairman Herger and the Ranking Member, Representative Cardin. Through their leadership in conducting a series of public hearings, Congress is beginning to gain insight into what is needed to ensure that children are protected. These hearings have also helped us all understand the enormous complexities involving systems change.
While everyone understands the need for children to be protected and to have a permanent home, it is more difficult to grasp the complexities of child welfare financing. Why is child welfare financing reform necessary? The answer lies in its importance to the future of the 542,000 children in foster care, the 126,000 children in foster care waiting for an adoptive placement, and the over one million children receiving child protective services. In our current system, states are left every day trying to cobble together a patchwork of funding streams limited either in the number of children who can be served or how they can be served. Children who enter into the child welfare system have already suffered the trauma associated with abuse or neglect. Their trauma should not be exacerbated by there being too few caseworkers to adequately prepare them for a permanency placement; underpaid foster parents or caregivers who are always stretching every dollar to try to provide them the basic necessities; too few mental health services to address their emotional or behavioral health needs; or, the general lack of resources to treat the substance abuse, domestic violence, or mental health issues of their parents which makes reunification that much more difficult.
CWLA appreciates the interest and work of other members of Congress and this Subcommittee. We were pleased to support legislation spearheaded last year by Representative Camp to reauthorize the Adoption Incentives Payments. We are also supportive of legislation introduced by Representative Cardin, the Child Protective Services Improvement Act (H.R. 1534), and legislation introduced by Representative Stark, the Child Protection Services Workforce Improvement Act (H.R. 2437). Both of these measures make a down payment towards the comprehensive reform that is needed.
CWLA hopes that the recommendations of the Pew Commission and the work of the Subcommittee will result in a serious national debate and consideration about the way in which we choose to carry out our collective responsibility for protecting and caring for the most vulnerable children and youth in our communities. To accomplish that goal and to implement effective legislation will require a dialogue that involves all the partners in this process. In addition to members of the Congress and congressional staff, this includes state, local, public and private agencies and officials, advocates and advocacy groups representing all parts of the child welfare system, and those families and children most directly affected by our decisions.
The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care
In May, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, a panel of national experts, released a report that makes comprehensive recommendations about ways to improve the financing of child welfare services and to improve court performance in child welfare cases. CWLA appreciates the work of the Pew Commission and their recommendations, and their willingness to engage CWLA and other partners in the child welfare system as they developed their recommendations. We also appreciate their continued efforts to focus the nation's attention on this matter.
The recommendations of the Pew Commission include some broad proposals and principles that we believe are fundamental to reform and that can serve as a starting point for such an effort:
- The care of abused and neglected children needs to be a shared partnership between the federal government and states.
- Support offered through the Title IV-E program should be maintained and serve as the cornerstone for building additional supports.
- New federal resources - in addition to the basic safety net of federal support offered through the Title IV-E Foster Care program - must be provided to states and communities to enable them to make a greater investment in preventing child abuse and supporting families.
- The federal government, along with the states, should provide support for all abused and neglected children, regardless of family income, including children who are members of Indian tribes and children living in the U.S. territories.
- The child welfare workforce needs better supports, including manageable caseloads and training.
- Children living with their grandparents or other relatives as an alternative to foster care should be afforded federal support.
- The courts need to be a part of any comprehensive reform.
House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee Draft Legislation
Based on our initial review, the key components of the Subcommittee draft legislation include:
Reforming the financing system is an extremely complex task. Today's testimony focuses on our understanding of how both the Pew Commission report and the Subcommittee draft legislation address specific areas of utmost importance - eligibility; payments for the care of children, i.e., maintenance; payment for face-to-face contact and work with children and their families, i.e., the services block grant; training of the workforce; and data collection.
- The basic safety net of federal support offered through the Title IV-E program would be compromised by capping the amount of assistance available to a state to provide for the maintenance of children in foster care.
- All abused and neglected children in foster care and adoptive placements would be eligible for federal support, but at a reduced federal reimbursement rate.
- The rate for federal participation to support foster care placements would be lower than the rates to support adoptions.
- A new block grant for services, entitled Safe Children, Strong Families, would be created by combining Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance administration and training funds with Title IV-B Child Welfare and Promoting Safe and Stable Families funds.
Title IV-E Maintenance
CWLA strongly agrees with the recommendation contained in the Pew Commission report to retain the Title IV-E Foster Care maintenance payments as a basic safety net for children who need care.
In the Title IV-E Foster Care program, the cost of providing children in foster care the basic necessities - food, clothing, shelter, school supplies - and supervision is referred to as maintenance. In exchange for making all children eligible, both the draft legislation and the Pew Commission report recommend reducing the percentage of the federal government's share of every dollar spent.
In contrast to the Pew Commission's recommendation that maintenance be kept as an entitlement, meaning the states and federal government would share the cost of providing care for all children, the draft legislation places a cap on the amount of federal funds available for maintenance. This is particularly troublesome as having now proposed that all children become eligible and that the federal share of every dollar spent be reduced, states are going to also be limited in the amount of federal assistance they can receive. Eliminating the guarantee of maintenance support could certainly impede the march toward permanency and safety for children.
While the draft legislation makes a provision for potential relief for states experiencing a severe foster care crisis, it is based only on what would be a phenomenal annual growth in numbers and does not take into account the needs of children in care. It is entirely possible for the number of children in care to remain static or grow minimally, yet the cost of caring for those children rise significantly. In such a case, if the state has claimed its maximum maintenance funding and the growth did not meet the definition of a severe crisis, the state would be denied relief.
Title IV-E Foster Care Eligibility
Both the draft legislation and the Pew Commission report eliminate the requirement that a child's eligibility for foster care and adoption assistance benefits be linked to 1996 AFDC income standards. CWLA heartily supports making all children in foster care and adoption eligible as the first step in reform.
Both the Pew Commission and the Subcommittee draft legislation propose some ways to achieve that goal. The Pew Commission offers several options, some which involve new federal investments. The Subcommittee draft caps federal funding for foster care while reducing the federal foster care matching rate.
CWLA asks the Subcommittee to carefully consider any proposal that involves a too severe reduction in the rate of the federal share. This could create an increased and unacceptable burden for states that could make it difficult for them to serve children.
Kinship Placements and Guardianship
CWLA believes that one of the strongest recommendations of the Pew Commission was the inclusion of federal support for subsidized guardianship and kinship placements. Subsidized guardianships, including placements with grandparents and other relatives, are an important permanency option for many children. Currently, the federal government does not provide specific funding to support that option. The draft legislation permits subsidized guardianship only as a waiver option for a state rather than automatically including it in maintenance. It is critical that subsidized guardianship and kinship programs be an option for all state and local child welfare systems if our goal is to increase the rate of permanency for these children.
Tribes and Territories
Both the Pew Commission and the Subcommittee bill include proposals that would allow tribes and territories increased access to Title IV-E funds. The best way to assist tribes in addressing their foster care and adoption needs is through direct access to these funds. CWLA supports legislation pending before this Subcommittee introduced by Representative Camp that would allow eligible tribes or consortia to have direct access to Title IV-E funds.
Both the Pew Commission and the draft legislation recommend states be allowed to transfer "excess" federal foster care maintenance funds into the services block grant for reinvestment into other child welfare services. These "excess" funds would come from a state reducing its foster care expenditures below a certain baseline. Based on states' current struggle to adequately cover the cost of care for its children, the likelihood of excess funds seems remote. "Unused" transferred foster care funds should not be relied on as a primary source of new funding for prevention and other services. CWLA supports rewarding states for improving performance, however, any opportunity for transfer must be constructed in a way that does not provide a disincentive to provide the care that children in foster care need.
Block Grant for Services (Safe Children, Strong Families)
As this Subcommittee, the Pew Commission, CWLA and other advocates have highlighted, there is a tremendous need to devote more federal resources to prevention and early intervention efforts in child welfare. Both the draft legislation and the Pew Commission report propose to initiate this effort by combining Title IV-E administration and training funds with Title IV-B Child Welfare Services and Title IV-B Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program funds into a block grant to be known as Safe Children, Strong Families.
The funds just listed are those that support direct contact and work with children and families. Title IV-E administration pays for the face-to-face time caseworkers spend with children in foster care, case planning for children, securing services for them, preparing and attending judicial hearings, and, recruiting foster parents, among other activities. Title IV-E training funds are used not only to prepare the workforce, but also to provide them ongoing training, as well as training for foster and adoptive parents. Title IV-B programs fund services to enable children to remain in their own homes or be reunified with families.
The Pew Commission recommends automatically increasing this annual block grant appropriation based on the consumer price index plus two percent. The draft legislation proposes annual increases, but does not tie those increases to a specific factor. While the draft legislation does include an authorization of an additional $525 million a year, we must caution that since a similar option was created in 2001 for the Title IV-B Promoting Safe and Stable Families program, the history is that these dollars have never been fully appropriated.
CWLA has questions about the potential impact of including Title IV-E training funds in a block grant that is designed to fund services. We continue to view workforce issues, including training, as vital to addressing problems in the child welfare field. By including training funds in the block grant, states may have to choose what, if any, portion of the allocation could be dedicated to training and staff development - thereby forcing training needs to compete with direct service needs.
CWLA commends the Pew Commission for its recognition of the necessity to directly address the need for support of our child welfare workforce. Pew Commission recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convene a collaborative working group of state officials, professional organizations, and researchers to review existing standards from a variety of sources and recommend a national set of best practice standards for both worker competence and caseload size. States that meet and maintain those standards would receive an enhanced 1% federal match to their Safe Children and Strong Families Grant funds.
CWLA endorses the Pew Commission's recommendation that funding for SACWIS (States Automated Child Welfare Information System) be continued as a separate federally supported activity. Measuring and tracking outcomes, maintaining useful client records, and collecting data about service need and use are all essential to determining how well we are doing in child welfare. Over the last decade, states have been able to receive discrete funding support for developing their automated data systems. Even though this process has been cumbersome and is still evolving, states are in a better position to answer questions about their efforts than they would be absent those systems.
- CWLA believes that the basic safety net provided many children and adoptive families through Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance should be maintained as an uncapped entitlement.
- CWLA believes all children in foster care and adoptive placements, including those children under the auspices of tribes and territories, should be eligible for federal support.
Today, only slightly more than half the children in foster care are Title IV-E eligible due to the link with outdated income standards. For those children not eligible, states are spending Social Services Block Grant dollars, state dollars, and local funds to provide their care. All are funds that could be used to support vital prevention, support, and follow-up services if they were not being used to support foster care.
- CWLA suggests that this Subcommittee carefully consider the impact of reducing the federal matching rate for foster care and adoption assistance. Given that expanding eligibility is a desired outcome, the Subcommittee should consider other alternatives such as the provision contained in H.R. 1534 offered by Representative Cardin that removes income eligibility for Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption while allowing states to align the Title IV-E match rate with a state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance matching rate. Senators DeWine and Rockefeller also have introduced legislation (S. 862) that begins to address this issue by eliminating the income eligibility assistance for adoption assistance without reducing the federal match rate.
- CWLA believes that federal support should be extended for subsidized guardianship and kinship placements in order to increase the rate of permanency for children.
- CWLA wholeheartedly supports the need for new investments for services. Providing necessary resources is one way that the federal government can better partner with the states to help achieve the goals of increased safety, permanency and well being for children. The magnitude of that need has been demonstrated in the Program Improvement Plans (PIPs) that the states are beginning to implement. A recent GAO report found that the most common challenges affecting states' implementation are insufficient funding, insufficient numbers of staff and high caseloads. Our review of thirty-three PIPs found that twenty-seven states specifically referenced the need for mental health and substance abuse services. Two-thirds of the states describe needing to increase the availability of foster and adoptive parents. Not only does this mean more staff time to recruit these parents, it means additional training will be needed.
- CWLA has questions about the impact of including Title IV-E administration and training into a services block grant.
Title IV-E administration provides funding for activities directly related to achieving safety and permanency for children in foster care. Capping the amount of federal funding a state can receive for that activity could make it more difficult to achieve those outcomes.
Training resources, which are so vital to the quality of decisions made on behalf of children, should be assured.
Equitable Distribution of Funds
Should there be an effort to include administration and training into a services block grant, it would be difficult to develop a formula that fairly represents the varied ways in which states have claimed Title IV-E funds. Any formula for how much a state would get from a block grant that included these programs would be skewed since states' historical Title IV-E claims may vary widely depending on the availability of other funding streams. A block grant based on historical spending could create winners and losers among states.
For example, according to Congressional Research Service data for fiscal year 2000, two states received over 70 percent of their Title IV-E Foster Care funds from the administrative category. For the states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Virginia, and Washington, more than 50 percent of their total Title IV-E funding came from the administrative category. For Louisiana and Kentucky that amount was less than 35 percent. The amounts for Maryland, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania were between 35 and 50 percent.
- CWLA believes that any discussion of financing reform should encompass the many other funding streams that support child welfare services. Although they help frame the discussion, neither the Pew Commission report nor the draft Subcommittee legislation go far enough in this regard. True child welfare financing reform will involve more than changes to Titles IV-E and IV-B. Many states look to the Social Services Block Grant, TANF, Medicaid and other funding streams to finance needed services. These programs should be safeguarded and improved in order to provide support for child welfare.
CWLA urges the Subcommittee to take the time to fully evaluate and hear from all those most impacted by the pending proposals. It will also be important to evaluate how these proposals address the problems that have surfaced in the recent hearings held by this Subcommittee including the lack of services, insufficient workforce supports, lack of adequate funding for prevention, improved data collection, increased accountability, and PIP implementation. It will be important for states, private agencies, advocates, and others to fully understand, analyze, and become engaged toward building a consensus reform plan.
This Subcommittee is now armed with a tremendous amount of evidence, through the Child and Family Service Reviews, the PIPs submitted to HHS, and the testimony you have taken to date, to now take the meaningful steps toward reform that will provide for the safety, permanency, and well-being our most vulnerable children deserve. CWLA offers our assistance and participation in this important endeavor.
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