My name is Shay Bilchik, I am the President and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). CWLA welcomes this opportunity to offer testimony on behalf of our 1,000 public and private nonprofit child-serving member agencies nationwide for the hearing to review the oversight systems designed to prevent abuse and neglect of children, including those under State protection. This hearing represents an important opportunity to review the existing federal, state, and local oversight mechanisms in place and to take a look at what needs to be done to ensure that all children in this country are protected from abuse and neglect.
Existing Child Protection Oversight Mechanisms
There are many forms of oversight built into the child welfare system at every level of operation. Some are complementary. Others are simply different. None have been fully developed. Each is limited by lack of time, information, authority, funding, or other factors.
The child welfare system may, in theory, be one of the most thoroughly scrutinized public activities in our society. Multiple layers of oversight functions have been created. However, it is not clear that any particular oversight mechanism has been implemented with sufficient depth or breadth to achieve anything beyond sporadic, localized success. Therefore, we currently work within a system that depends on the poorly coordinated actions of a variety of inadequately staffed overseers who must carry out their duties with often inadequate information and insufficient authority to implement corrective actions.
The best course of future action is to select a small set of complementary core mechanisms and concentrate on developing each element to a more complete level of effectiveness.
Effective oversight is entirely dependent on sound information. Regardless of the location or scope of a particular oversight mechanism, it relies on four principal sources of information:
- Formal reports of aggregate information about children, families, and interventions. This includes management information systems, research, and evaluation.
- Individual and family case records resulting from casework, contracts, and clinical and court activity.
- Direct reports or commentary from people who are served by the system or who work in the system. This includes administrative reviews, quality assurance interviews, testimony, research, and evaluation.
- Statements of intent, expectations or standards that are a part of formal plans, policies, regulations. This includes plans, budgets, regulations, policies, reports, and issue briefs.
The information generated within each of these areas is often inconsistent, incomplete, or years behind current dates. The data from each element are usually not universally available within the full range of oversight mechanisms and, even when widely available, may be presented or organized with considerable variability. In order for the any of the existing mechanisms to achieve a higher level of effectiveness, basic information from all four sources must be used in a more integrated, consistent, and balanced manner. In general, an inadequate investment is made in the basic tools and activities necessary to provide this information.
The wide range of existing oversight mechanisms can be best understood by placing them within three broad categories: Community/External; Case Management Process; and Regulatory.
Community-based or external oversight mechanisms include a wide variety of elective and appointive, policymaking, review and comment, monitoring, and planning bodies that are mandated to exercise some degree of scrutiny and to maintain accountability from the child welfare systems.
- Governor’s Offices of Children
- State Legislative Committees
- City and County Boards
- Appointed Commissions
- Citizen Advisory Groups
- Gubernatorial or Legislative Task Forces or Panels
- Public Advocates
- Court Appointed Monitoring Panels
In addition to these state and local efforts, every state also has some form of child fatality review process that includes a review of every child death when the child either died while in agency custody or within 6 months of leaving custody. Some states require that these fatality reviews be conducted on every child who dies in the jurisdiction (city or county), regardless of whether they were in agency custody at the time.
Case Management Process
The core child welfare process includes a set of standard authorities, functions, and review procedures that are inherently intended to provide ongoing oversight at all stages of the case management process.
- Administrative Reviews
- Citizen Case Review and Foster Care Review Boards
- Quality Assurance
- Utilization review
- Contract monitoring
- Fatality Review and Critical Incident Review
- Multi-disciplinary Teams
- Certification and Eligibility
Regulatory functions are used within child welfare to establish standards against which capacity or performance is measured and rewards or penalties are imposed. Federal law or programs require many of these.
- Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR)
- Program Improvement Plans (PIP)
- Title IV-E (of the Social Security Act) Audits
- Title IV-B (of the Social Security Act) State Plans
- Adoption Foster Care Analysis Review System (AFCAR)
- State Automated Child Welfare Information Systems (SACWIS)
- Other State Plans – such as Medicaid state plans
- Licensing and Certification
- Voluntary Accreditation
If one looks critically at the more common oversight mechanisms two conclusions are obvious:
- The basic concept behind most mechanisms is generally well conceived and, given adequate investment, would create the potential to enhance the overall strength of the system.
- Oversight mechanisms usually do not function at a fully developed level and fall short of realizing their potential.
A quick review of a few of the most important oversight functions helps to illustrate these points.
- Dependent on relatively old aggregate information
- Insufficient time to integrate and analyze information
- Workloads prohibit consistent, detailed reviews
- Inconsistent access to consumers
- Often questionable data from automated information systems
- Some states lack formal systems
- Often don’t have adequate resources to select adequate samples or to gather information from consumers
|Federal Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR)
- Inadequate case sampling
- Aggregate information is compromised by inconsistent definitions and reporting among states
Virtually all existing oversight mechanisms are only partially developed and inadequately funded. It would be advisable to reduce the number of functions, many of which are duplicative, to concentrate on a core of more reliable oversight mechanisms. It would be important to make decisions based on a critical understanding of answers to questions like those that follow:
- Does each function have good access to complete information (not solely based on one data source or perspective) from each of the four principal sources to draw sound long term conclusions.
- Does it have the capacity to analyze the information?
- Does it have the authority (or access to authority) to act on findings?
- How does each mechanism combine access to the system with appropriate objectivity?
- How do existing mechanisms support each other?
- Are they complementary or competitive?
There appears to be no dearth of efforts to provide child welfare oversight. However, these efforts are neither integrated or funded in a manner that allows them to be as effective as possible
Impact of State Budget Cuts
A discussion of how to improve oversight of the child welfare system cannot ignore the reality that the best oversight cannot make up for a lack of resources and needed services. A system that can detect inadequacies does little good if those inadequacies cannot be corrected.
In 2003, CWLA surveyed states to determine the impact of recent state budget cuts on their child welfare systems. CWLA’s survey revealed that virtually every state has developed spending or reduction plans for their child welfare agencies over the past three years. Forty states reported formal spending reduction plans and two states reported informal plans. The average percentage cut is approximately 8%, with a range of 0-3% to over 20%.
As a result of these financial constraints:
- States have made significant reductions in staffing and services within their own agencies.
- Child welfare agencies are limiting their services to only those traditional core services related to child protection. Many states indicated that they now focused on their “core” mission, defined as child protection (investigation, removal, and placement). Programs that do not serve children in this population are being reduced or eliminated, such as homeless youth programs, child care subsidies, before and after school programs, teen parent counseling, and youth in transition.
- There is strong evidence that preventive and early intervention services are diminishing across the country. Consequently, state have been providing more expensive services (even if this conflicts with the original objective of reducing expenses).
- Over two-thirds of the states have plans to reduce or eliminate contracts with private agencies and to eliminate or cancel specific service program areas. Program areas affected include: in-home services, day treatment, family support prevention programs, foster care training, after-school programs, supervised visitation programs, emergency shelter programs, child care, domestic violence, family preservation services, and family resource centers.
- States are reducing or eliminating adoptive and foster parent recruitment and support. These changes conflict with the legislative permanency requirements.
In light of these actions, we have to evaluate the impact on the child welfare system. We are confident that states are making every effort to implement changes that enable them to continue to protect traditional services for children. However, we asked many states what their thoughts were on the implication of these spending reductions on services for children. In the long run, they see:
- Decreasing capacity to provide all services;
- Increasing caseloads and waiting lists for services;
- Decreasing preventive services, which may result in a need for more expensive future treatments;
- Decreasing in-home support services, resulting in more out-of-home care (even as states report the desire to turn to more in-home services);
- Decreasing support to foster parents, which may result in fewer foster parents in the system
- Longer lengths of stay for children in foster care;
- Decreasing permanency options for kids;
- Decreasing ability to record information into information systems in a timely manner; and
- Cuts in other state agencies, including mental health, substance abuse, and Medicaid, will likely result in cost shifting, with children moving among jurisdictions to seek services.
If deficits continue, we will likely see even further reductions in states’ abilities to provide services. Given that nearly all states have undergone the federal Child and Family Service Reviews, it is also unclear how states will implement their Program Improvement Plans which are likely to require more, rather than fewer, resources.
CWLA’s Call for Comprehensive Child Welfare Reform
CWLA urges Congress to comprehensively review and take action on what is truly needed to build the system of care so that children are protected. CWLA recognizes that the child welfare system, as currently constructed, cannot protect all children adequately. Failures occur. They are not limited to any single state. These failures will continue to occur until we put into place a comprehensive child protection system. We are overdue in implementing an improved and strengthened system. True child welfare reform will hinge on an improved system of shared financing responsibilities among federal, state, local, and tribal governments.
The national child welfare system continues to be in need of:
- A reliable, responsive, and predictable method of guaranteed funding, for a full range of essential services, as well as placement and treatment services.
- A means of maintaining consistent focus on safety, permanency, and well-being as outcomes for children.
- Rigorous standards combined with strong federal and state accountability mechanisms.
- Recruitment and support of adequately trained child welfare professionals, foster and adoptive parents, mentors, and community volunteers.
- Resources that enable parents to provide adequate protection and care for their own children.
Without all of these elements in place the well-being of many of our country’s children will continue to be lacking.
New Investments Needed
Increase Support for Prevention and Early Intervention Services
Resources are needed for primary prevention services that can prevent many families from ever reaching the point where a child is removed from the home. Prevention and early intervention services play a vital role for children and families in communities. Family support, home visiting, and in-home services enable many parents to gain competence and confidence in their parenting while addressing other family concerns. Child care, housing, and job training/employment are services that enable families to stay together to the fullest extent possible. These and other preventive services need to be much more available to families early on, as well as when a crisis occurs.
Community-based child protection programs have demonstrated that many families can be helped before there is a need for protective intervention with the family. Often, the family can identify what is needed and be connected to resources-and contact with the formal child welfare system can be averted. Often, after a formal report has been made, a child can be maintained safely at home with sufficient supports, clear expectations, and monitoring. At all points in the continuum, however, ongoing, targeted assessment must be taking place. Both the initial child protective services investigation and placement prevention services require appropriate immediate assessments of the family, the child and the community. CWLA supports the Act To Leave No Child Behind (H.R. 936) that would allow states to claim reimbursement under the Title IV-E foster care program to address these needs.
Increase Funding for Promoting Safe and Stable Families
CWLA supports increased funding to $505 million for the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program (PSSF). States use these funds for family support, family preservation, adoption and family reunification. Since 2001 when this program was last reauthorized, Congress has had the ability to add $200 million to the $305 million in mandatory funding. Despite the best efforts of members of this Subcommittee, Congress had never approved more than $405 million for PSSF.
Restore Funding for the Social Services Block Grant
CWLA again calls for the restoration of funding to $2.8 billion for the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG, Title XX of the Social Security Act). In 2000, SSBG represented 17% of all federal funding for child welfare services. While SSBG funds can be used for an array of social services, such as child care or services for the aging, states chose to spend these funds on child welfare services more than any other service area. In federal FY 2001, child protection and child foster care services each accounted for 22% of SSBG expenditures; 43 states used SSBG funds to address child protection services; and 35 states used SSBG to fund foster care.
As part of the 1996 TANF law, SSBG funding was to be restored in FY 2003. That commitment has never been fulfilled. Restoring full funding to $2.8 billion for SSBG would fulfill a congressional promise and provide needed resources to states in these difficult budget times.
Support the Adoption Incentives Fund
CWLA supports full funding of $42 million for the Adoption Incentives Fund. This is an important fund that provides resources to the states to encourage the adoption of children. Increased funding is especially needed to help states reach the new target of facilitating the adoption of older children. Congress, led by the work of this Subcommittee, reauthorized the Adoption Incentives fund just last year. Despite that effort, the 2004 funding does not provide the full $42 million.
Implement Program Improvement Plans
Many states have now undergone their federally mandated Child and Family Services Reviews. States are now putting together Program Improvement Plans that outline what improvements are needed to better ensure that children are protected. Many states will struggle to implement these plans unless resources are provided.
Legislation pending before the Subcommittee sponsored by Representative Benjamin Cardin (H.R. 1534) offers an innovative approach that would target funds to assist states in the implementation of their Program Improvement Plans. H.R. 1534 would provide grants to states to help implement program improvements and would provide an additional bonus for the most successful states.
Adopt Strategies to Better Support the Child Welfare Workforce
A well-trained, reliable, and experienced workforce is a critical element to making children safer. Legislation pending in this subcommittee introduced by Representative Pete Stark (H.R. 2437), as well as H.R. 1534 mentioned earlier, includes a number of workforce strategies including expanded access to training for new and current child welfare workers. In the U.S. Senate, Senator Mike DeWine has sponsored legislation (S. 407) that expands college loan forgiveness to this part of our nation’s workforce.
Change the Eligibility for Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance
To ensure child safety, permanency, and well-being, federal funding should be provided for all children in out-of-home care. Congress has mandated legal and permanency protections for all foster and adopted children, however, federal funding is only available to pay for the costs of children who are eligible for Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. The current law links Title IV-E eligibility to archaic standards that each state had in place under their 1996 AFDC eligibility standards.
Since AFDC no longer exists, this continues to be an administrative burden on the states. Even more critical, however, is the fact that as time goes by, fewer and fewer children will be eligible for federal support. Data gathered by the Urban Institute indicates that as of 2000, approximately 57% of all children in out-of-home placement were eligible for Title IV-E funding. Some states may be able to serve less than one-third of their children in out-of-home placement through the use of Title IV-E foster care fund. If the current eligibility link remains, fewer and fewer children will be eligible for federal foster care and adoption assistance.
Expand Family Reunification Services
Reunification is the first permanency option states consider for children entering care. Yet, in many ways, it is the most challenging option to achieve in a plan-based, permanent way. Forty-three percent (239,552) of children in care on September 30, 2000, had a case plan goal of reunification with their parents or other principal caretaker while 57% (157,712) of the children who exited care during FY 2000 returned to their parent’s or caretaker’s home. Successful permanency through reunification requires many things, including skilled workers, readily available supportive and treatment resources, clear expectations and service plans, and excellent collaboration across involved agencies, at a minimum. The Act To Leave No Child Behind (H.R. 936) would allow states to claim reimbursement under the Title IV-E foster care program to address these needs.
Support Kinship Permanency and Guardianship
One area that can serve as an important tool in providing children with a safe and permanent setting is the use of guardian kinship care arrangements. Some states have used various resources to fund this permanency option. A few states have utilized federal Title IV-E funds to support guardianship through the use of Title IV-E waivers.
CWLA supports a federally funded guardianship permanency option available through Title IV-E to allow states to provide assistance payments on behalf of children to grandparents and other relatives who have assumed legal guardianship of the children for whom they have committed to care for on a permanent basis. Kinship guardianship assistance agreements and payments would be similar to the adoption assistance agreements in that they would take into consideration the circumstances and the needs of the child.
Kinship care, when properly assessed and supported, has been shown to provide safe and stable care for children who remain with or return to their families. Twenty-five percent of children in care are living with relatives, some of who will not be able to return to their parents. States vary in their use of relative homes for foster care even though federal regulations state that there is a preference for relative placements. States are challenged to provide the financial, social, and legal supports that are needed to ensure safety and permanency in kinship placements. Generally there is a lack of case management and support services made available to relative and legal guardian providers.
CWLA believes that important and necessary reforms must be enacted to ensure a consistent level of safety and care for all of America’s children. We look forward to working with this subcommittee to develop a comprehensive child welfare reform proposal that meets all the needs of America’s the most vulnerable children and families and ensures that every child is protected. A part of that reform must include improvements to oversight systems designed to ensure the safety of our children.