On November 9, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report they had provided to the Senate Finance committee in October. The report: HHS Could Do More to Support States’ Efforts to Keep Children in Family-Based Care examined eight states including Washington, Kansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Connecticut and Colorado by interviewing 41 stakeholders made up of state and local child welfare officials, congregate care providers and a dozen national advocacy organizations.

The report provides information that will play a part in upcoming Senate Finance Committee deliberations over the next phase of child welfare reforms.

The general conclusion is that HHS could do more to assist and review state efforts to reduce institutional placements of children in foster care. In looking at the eight states they generally found that reducing such placements required: expanding services to avoid child removal, increasing the availability of family-based placement options and by revising how congregate care is utilized. The report restated some of the ongoing challenges of state and local child welfare agencies including the need to build capacity for family placements, address the shortage of services and improve assessments of a child’s physical and mental health needs.

HHS highlighted a legislative proposal in the President’s 2015 budget. That proposal being considered in Congress would require documentation to justify the use of a congregate care placement, judicial review every six months in the case of such placements and providing specialized training for caseworkers with reduced caseloads and additional training for foster parents. The GAO recommended that HHS collect more information on state efforts at reducing these placements and identifying and sharing best practices with states.

Earlier this year Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a bill, S1964, that would open access to Title IV-E funds for focused services that could prevent placement into foster care. Since that bill was introduced there have been discussions on how to expand needed services through IV-E and how to better regulate institutional placements. Time is running short for this year but there are still a few days in December that would allow for legislative action at the Senate Finance Committee level. Discussions are ongoing and bipartisan but IF time is runs short, legislation (and discussions) can continue uninterrupted in January since this is still the same Congress.