Testimony

Statement by
Wade F. Horn, Ph.D.
Assistant Secretary for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

on
Hearing: Federal Child Welfare Oversight
before the
Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Human Resources
U.S. House of Representatives

January 28, 2004

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss issues related to federal child welfare oversight and the President's commitment to improving the lives of vulnerable children and families. Through the development of national outcome measures, and the implementation of the results-oriented Child and Family Services Review process, we have built a national consensus on the key goals for child welfare: assuring children's safety, meeting children's needs for timely permanency in a loving and stable family, and promoting child and family well-being. I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide a brief overview of our Federal oversight activities and to share with you initiatives we are undertaking to further strengthen child welfare services.

Overview of Child Welfare Oversight

The role of Federal child welfare oversight is to monitor States and Tribes to ensure they are meeting their responsibilities of protecting our nation's most vulnerable children and providing effective services to at-risk families. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) uses several mechanisms to work with the States to assess State and local child welfare systems, to measure compliance with Federal laws and to hold States accountable both for meeting Federal requirements and, more importantly, for achieving positive outcomes for children and families. We also use information gathered from our various reviews to provide targeted technical assistance that is responsive to individual State needs in an effort to help them improve their systems and services. We urge States to collect and analyze information in a manner that promotes a culture of continuous assessment and improvement, rather than waiting for the next tragedy to call for reform.

The following are the principle mechanisms for Federal oversight of child welfare systems:

  • Title IV-E Eligibility Reviews - Title IV-E reviews focus on whether a child meets the statutory eligibility requirements for foster care maintenance payments. Federal funds are disallowed for all cases that fail to meet these requirements. If a State fails in more than a specific percentage of cases, it is considered to be out of compliance with the Federal foster care program requirements.
  • The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) - AFCARS collects case level information on all children under the care of the State in foster care and those children adopted from the State public child welfare system. It also includes information on adoptive and foster parents. The AFCARS review encompasses assessing the ability of a State's automated information system to gather, extract and submit the correct AFCARS data accurately. The review process is a rigorous evaluation of the State's system and allows the review team to identify problems, investigate the causes, and suggest solutions during the review.
  • Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS) - Through these reviews we assess and inspect the planning, design, and operation of SACWIS systems to determine how such systems meet the requirements imposed in the law, regulations, guidelines, and in the State's unique business plan. ACF evaluates all mandatory functional components (e.g. intake, screening, assessment, and investigations) and all the optional components the State elected to include in the system design (e.g. court processing and contract monitoring). The SACWIS functions as a "case management" system that serves as the electronic case file for children and families served by the States' child welfare programs. Twenty-nine States now have operational systems that are comprehensive and capable of supporting both improved case management and required data reporting.
  • Child and Family Services Review - The CFS Reviews are designed to ensure that State child welfare agency practices are in conformity with Federal child welfare requirements, to determine what is actually happening to children and families as they are engaged in State child welfare services, and to assist States to enhance their capacity to help children and families involved with the child welfare system achieve positive outcomes. The CFS Review is the most comprehensive Federal child welfare monitoring tool we have and is the focus of my testimony today.

Child and Family Services Reviews

The Child and Family Services (CFS) Review, is the cornerstone of our efforts to review State performance and ensure compliance with key provisions of law. It also is our means to partner with the States in identifying areas that need improvement and in working with them to bring about those improvements. I would like to take a few moments to describe the reviews and what we are learning from them.

The CFS reviews began in FY 2001 and to date we have completed 48 CFS Reviews including 46 States, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Only 4 CFS Reviews remain: Mississippi, Rhode Island, Nevada, and New Jersey. These reviews will be completed by the end of March 2004.

The CFS Review covers all areas of child welfare services, from child protection and family preservation, to adoption and positive youth development. The review requires that State child welfare agencies, in collaboration with a range of other State and local representatives, engage in an intense self-examination of their practices and analyze detailed data profiles that the Federal government provides from our national databases on child welfare.

We follow the self-assessment phase of the review with an intense onsite review--in which we pair teams of Federal and State staff to review cases and interview children, parents, and foster parents -- to identify areas of strength in State child welfare programs and areas that require improvement. This joint approach to reviewing States has had the effect of not only engaging States in identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, but in building the commitment of States to make needed improvements and strengthen their capacity to self-monitor between Federal reviews.

When weaknesses are identified, States enter into Program Improvement Plans (PIP) to address any of the areas where we find deficiencies. The PIP must be submitted for approval within 90 days of the completion of their final report. To date, 31 Program Improvement Plans have been approved.

We recognize that providing quality technical assistance is critical to helping States get the most out of the review process and bring about needed change. Through a network of 10 National Resource Centers, we provide technical assistance to States throughout all the different stages of the CFS Review process. The Administration provides over $8 million annually for the resource centers whose role is to build the capacity of State, local, tribal and other publicly administered or supported child welfare agencies. These resource centers are organized around subject areas and can provide specialized assistance in each of these areas tailored to the State needs. The National Resource Centers are playing an invaluable role in helping States develop and implement their Program Improvement Plans.

After the Program Improvement period ends, States will undergo a second review, and will continue this process until they come into compliance on all of the 14 areas under review. We hold the States accountable for achieving the provisions of their Program Improvement Plans but, in order to assist them in making needed improvements, we suspend Federal penalties while a State is implementing its plan. If a State fails to carry out the provisions of its Program Improvement Plan or fails to achieve its goals, we will begin withholding applicable penalties.

Among the most significant findings across the 48 States, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia are the following:

  • States are performing slightly better on safety outcomes for children than on permanency and well-being. Overall, States are responding to reports of abuse and neglect in a timely manner, and are providing services to prevent out-of-home placement when appropriate.
  • States need to work on preventing repeat abuse and neglect of children and need to improve the level of services provided to families to reduce the risk of harm, including monitoring families' participation in services.
  • The timely achievement of permanency outcomes, especially adoption, for children in foster care is one of the weakest areas of State performance.
  • Most of the States need to make significant improvements in their judicial processes for monitoring children in foster care, such as assuring timely court hearings and increasing their attention to timely termination of parental rights, where appropriate.
  • There is a strong correlation between frequent caseworker visits with children and positive findings in other areas, such as timely permanency achievement (which is one of the most difficult areas for States to address effectively) and indicators of child well-being.
  • In the area of well being, States are strongest in meeting the educational needs of children, followed by physical health, and then mental health.
  • States need to improve the way in which they assess the needs of family members and provide services, and the way in which they engage parents and children in developing case plans. In particular, States need to focus on their work with fathers, including identifying fathers and engaging them in services.
  • There are important differences in the level of services provided to intact families, as opposed to families whose children are in foster care, often with less attention to the intact families. We believe that many States need to strengthen the up-front preventive services they provide to intact families if they are to be successful in preventing the unnecessary break-up of families and in protecting those children who remain at home rather than being placed in foster care.

The Child and Family Services Reviews are making a significant contribution to improving child welfare services across the country, but there is still much work to be done. We know that we must do more in order to better protect children, support families and promote timely permanency. Therefore, the President has put forth a bold new Child Welfare Financing proposal that would strengthen State child welfare systems and help States better meet the needs of America's most vulnerable children and families.

Child Welfare Program Option

In FY 2004, the President unveiled a new proposal, the Child Welfare Program Option that would allow States to choose a flexible, alternative financing structure over the current title IV-E foster care entitlement program. Over the years, we consistently have heard from States that the title IV-E foster care program is too restrictive because it only provides funds for the poorest children who have been removed from the home. The program also has been criticized for failing to support the goal of permanency. While reimbursement for foster care and related case management services is open-ended, title IV-E funds may not be used for other types of services that could prevent a child from needing to be placed in care in the first place, or a child's returning home, or moving to another permanent placement.

Under the President's proposal, States could choose to administer their foster care program more flexibly, with a fixed allocation of funds over a five year period, should this approach better support their unique child welfare needs. States that choose not to receive funding provided by this option would continue operating under the current title IV-E entitlement program.

The Program Option provides States with more flexibility so they can design more effective ways to strengthen services to vulnerable children and families. States that choose the Program Option would be able to use funds for foster care payments, prevention activities, permanency efforts (including subsidized guardianships), case management, administrative activities (including developing and operating State information systems), training for child welfare staff and other such service related child welfare activities. States would be able to develop innovative and effective systems for preventing child abuse and neglect, keeping families and children safely together, and moving children toward adoption and permanency quickly.

While States that choose this option would have much greater flexibility in how they use funds, they would continue to be required to maintain the child safety protections under current law, including requirements for conducting criminal background checks and licensing foster care providers, obtaining judicial oversight over decisions related to a child's removal and permanency, meeting permanency timelines, developing case plans for all children in foster care, and prohibiting race-based discrimination in foster and adoptive placements. The proposal also includes a maintenance of effort requirement to ensure that States selecting the new option maintain their existing level of investment in the program.

In addition to providing a new option for States, the President's proposal includes a $30 million set-aside for Indian Tribes or consortia that can demonstrate the capacity to operate a title IV-E program. Currently Tribes are not eligible to receive title IV-E funding, although some Tribes are able to access funds through agreements with States. This proposal would open the possibility for Tribes to receive direct title IV-E funding. We believe this proposal will result in the development of innovative child welfare programs that ultimately will better serve vulnerable children.

We believe that this option would offer a powerful new means for States to structure their child welfare services program in a way that supports the goals of safety, timely permanency and enhanced well-being for children and families, while relieving them of administrative burdens. Given the continuing problems faced by States in managing their child welfare programs, we all must think about more creative ways to strengthen these programs. We appreciate the support of this Committee by holding hearings and working with the Administration in creating legislative language to make this proposal a reality.

Finally, I would like to mention another Presidential priority that directly supports State efforts to provide needed services to children and families. As discussed earlier, the Child and Family Services Reviews point to States ongoing struggle with providing services to children remaining in their own home as well as the need for improvements in State judicial processes relating to child welfare. The Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program funds family support, family preservation, time-limited reunification, and adoption promotion and support services and provides funding for the Court Improvement Program. The President is deeply committed to securing full funding, $505 million, for this important program and we ask for your support of this vital investment in our Nation's families.

Conclusion

We have made great strides in the field of child welfare, but the work of assuring the safety, permanency and well-being of every child who comes to the attention of a child welfare agency or court in this country remains a tremendously challenging task. We are committed to working with the States, Members of Congress, community-based organizations and concerned citizens to continuously strive for better outcomes for all of these children.

I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to discuss our ongoing efforts to monitor the child welfare system through the Child and Family Services Reviews. More than any recent initiative of the Federal government, the Child and Family Services Review has captured the attention of State child welfare agencies. It also has gained the attention of the media, State legislatures, and others who know that changing complex child welfare systems will not be fast or easy. We, in the Administration for Children and Families, are committed to working with States, and to using the knowledge that we are gaining through the review to support States in improving the outcomes of child welfare services for the children and families they serve.

I also would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to highlight the President's bold new vision for strengthening the Child Welfare System through the Child Welfare Program Option. We are proud of the progress we have made to-date in providing more resources to States to support children, youth and families and look forward to working closely with you on the President's Child Welfare Option Proposal.

I would please to answer any questions.

Last Revised: February 6, 2004