Washington, DC – Two inextricably linked events occurred last week in the child welfare world -the Federal government announced that it had granted foster care funding waivers to five states including California, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, and Virginia, immediately following its release of the new national child abuse and neglect data for 2004. Touted as a response that would give “states the flexibility they need to support and protect children”, those seeking serious solutions know full well that providing the services needed to treat and reduce child abuse and neglect will take more than flexibility.
The latest child abuse and neglect data indicate that three million children were reported abused and neglected during 2004, with 872,000 children confirmed as victims of maltreatment. The report also indicated there were nearly 1,500 fatalities from abuse. These numbers are overwhelming many child serving agencies across the country, making it necessary for states to seek innovative approaches toward providing services and stemming the tide of children placed in foster care.
Unfortunately, these numbers have changed only slightly from year to year because as a country we have done very little to provide needed services and address the underlying causes of child abuse and neglect. We have known for some time how social ills such as poor housing, low or no wages, lack of affordable health care, mental health and substance abuse contribute to child abuse and neglect. Substance abuse by caregivers, present in up to two thirds of the cases coming into the child protection system, is often cited by child welfare agencies as crippling their ability to successfully protect and reunite the children in their care due to the lack of treatment services.
The basic needs of children, including nutrition, supervision, and nurturing, will continue to go unmet until we move away from piecemeal approaches and inconsistent policies on all levels to develop a long-term comprehensive strategic plan to protect children and help families.
On March 31, California, Florida, and Michigan were granted permission by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to modify how they use federal funds to provide early intervention and intensive in-home services for abused and neglected children. In Iowa and Virginia, waivers will provide subsidies to families who assume legal guardianship of children in foster care. Iowa will also provide intensive case planning and services for older children needing. These “waivers” from traditional restrictions around the use of these funds, will increase flexibility in their use and cap the level of federal funding. This will provide a short term benefit to these states in better meeting the needs of children at risk of, or who have been, abused or neglected.
In each instance, the states seek to conduct worthy efforts to meet the needs of children and we commend them for their innovative approaches. But, states should not be forced into a position to request waivers to avoid the impact of a federal funding formula that in no way relates to the needs of children who have been abused or neglected. The need to lock in this funding and create additional flexibility, is the result of an outdated and ineffective system of providing federal support for the protection and treatment of this nation’s abused and neglected children. The federal government links federal support for each child to a formula tied to 1996 income levels. As a result of this formula, inflation alone has eroded the number of children who receive federal support to less than half of those who have been abused or neglected. The impact is that children, who have already been neglected or abused by their parents, are also being neglected and abandoned by this nation’s leaders.
There are alternatives. Broader and more permanent solutions can be made available to abused and neglected children in every state. For example, current legislative proposals including H.R. 3380 and similar proposals would provide for guardianships and for kinship placements for relatives seeking guardianship of their family members. Likewise, intensive case management could be provided if the administration chose to continue, rather than seek to restrict as they have for five years, existing Medicaid targeted case management that have been available to children in the child welfare system.
Therefore, while we will monitor the progress of the “waiver states” and support them in every way possible in better meeting the needs of the children and families they serve, we also demand long term child welfare financing reform. We don’t think investments in prevention and family support should be conditioned on cutting other parts of the child welfare safety net. We call for a system that provides adequate funding for the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect and ensures that our federal leaders fulfill their responsibility to fully partner with states and local communities in guaranteeing that our abused and neglected children receive the protection and treatment they need and deserve. We need a plan and a lasting commitment to fix the problems that hinder our nation’s ability to be that “shining city on the hill” that the late President Ronald Reagan spoke so longingly of many years ago.