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Statement on Oversight of the Child Welfare System by Olivia A. Golden
Assistant Secretary for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Before the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources
April 22, 1999

Madam Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee,

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss federal oversight of the child welfare system: the network of state, local, and private organizations that seeks to ensure safety, permanence, and well-being for our nation's most vulnerable children, those children who have experienced or are at risk of child abuse and neglect. This work is enormously important and I want to thank the Committee for your leadership and commitment. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to report to you on our success in increasing the number of children adopted from the foster care system.

These last five years have seen extraordinary changes in the laws and procedures affecting child welfare and significant investment in resources designed to strengthen systems and improve outcomes for hundreds of thousands of children and families. In fact, a significant achievement of the last five years is that today all parties involved in child welfare ­ from the federal government to state government to private providers ­ are looking at outcomes and working to determine how to improve them. The changes that we and the states have made have the potential to make significant improvements in the results achieved from these services. Among the most important accomplishments:

  • Thanks to the Administration's Adoption 2002 initiative, federal legislation, and innovative activities supported by states and private foundations, we have made great progress in finding adoptive families for children waiting in foster care. Between 1996 and 1997, the number of children adopted grew from 28,000 to 31,000 and it appears the increase in 1998 was even greater.
  • In response to the Adoption and Safe Families Act, 33 states have passed legislation to promote better outcomes for children, including provisions that strengthen the focus on safety by clarifying circumstances when it is neither necessary nor appropriate to reunify children with their parents.
  • We have made significant investments in new automated systems that can generate the data and information needed by states and the federal government to track results and manage cases effectively.

Yet we still have a long way to go. Because of the continuing problems of child abuse and substance abuse and other factors, the number of children in foster care continues to grow and too many children remain in care for too long; the median length of stay nationally is 21 months. And approximately 18 percent of children have been in care for 5 years or more. There are simply too many children who drift in foster care wondering to whom they belong.

In my testimony, I would like to provide an overview of the child welfare system today, highlight the key actions that the Congress and the Administration have taken to strengthen the national framework and national oversight of child welfare, and summarize the results we have seen so far. I would also like to identify the most important next steps that we must take on behalf of children.

Children and the Child Welfare System

Each year, child protective services (CPS) agencies investigate reports involving almost 3 million children, nearly a million of whom are found to be victims of substantiated or indicated abuse and neglect. These figures have begun to decline slightly over the past several years, following two decades of steady increases in the number of children reported to CPS. While the majority of children coming to the attention of CPS remain with their families, about 15 to 20 percent of the victims of abuse and neglect must be removed from their homes and placed in foster care for some period of time in order to ensure their safety. Approximately 520,000 children were in foster care as of the end of March 1998, an increase of 28 percent over the estimated 406,000 children in care at the end of 1990.

Every day, front line workers, Administrators and judges across the country are called on to make incredibly difficult decisions about the lives of these children and their families. How can they best ensure a child's safety? Can a family facing multiple problems be strengthened to provide appropriate care and nurturing of its children? Can a child's need for a permanent place to call home best be achieved by working with the family of origin, or should an adoptive family be sought?

The child welfare system is complex--involving many organizations, institutions, and individuals. Public child welfare agencies, other public human services agencies, juvenile courts, private service providers and, of course, families themselves, all share responsibility for ensuring children's safety, permanence and well-being. Historically, child welfare services began largely as a function of private agencies and later developed as a responsibility of state and local governments. Ultimately, it is state government that has primary responsibility for carrying out child welfare programs and for protecting children in their care and custody. And, it should be noted states retain significant latitude in the design and delivery of child welfare services to help fulfill this responsibility in a manner that best meets the needs of their jurisdiction. Consequently, there is significant variation across states in practice and policy, including distinctions in the definitions of abuse and neglect and the standards for intervening in family life.

The federal role in child welfare is a relatively recent historical development. Today, the federal government's role includes creating and implementing a common policy framework in which child welfare services are to be carried out; sharing in the financing of child welfare services; and, holding states accountable both for using federal dollars in an appropriate manner and for achieving the results these programs are intended to accomplish. The federal role also includes helping to establish goals and priorities that provide direction to states; promoting innovation in service delivery; funding research and evaluation that help us to understand the dynamics of the child welfare system and the practices that can lead to better results; and, providing technical assistance to help states and localities strengthen their programs.

Increases in Adoption

In at least one area of child welfare, the adoption of children from the foster care system, we already have begun to see positive changes resulting from the reforms in federal and state laws and the increased federal attention being paid to child welfare issues. In November 1996, the Administration launched the "Adoption 2002" initiative, the centerpiece of which called for doubling the number of children who are adopted from the foster care system by the year 2002.

This ambitious and specific goal, along with a set of strategies to reach the goal, have served to elevate the importance of adoptions, hold states accountable for their actions, and reward progress in increasing the number of adoptions.

The Congress, in responding to the President's initiative, made key legislative reforms and by authorizing and appropriating funds for the adoption incentive program, provided vital leadership to encourage greater state activity. The results have been impressive. In fiscal year 1997, there were approximately 31,000 children adopted from the foster care system, up from about 28,000 the year before. Preliminary analyses of data for fiscal year 1998 suggest that there was an even greater increase in adoptions last year. And, the fact that there is now national attention being paid to the number of adoptions has prompted the states to improve their collection and reporting of information on children being adopted from foster care. These improved reporting systems allow states to identify and solve problems sooner and help us all better track states' progress.

Strengthening the National Framework for Child Welfare

The success in adoption reflects a part of the work we have done together to strengthen the national framework for child welfare. Over the last several years, the Administration and Congress, working together in a bipartisan manner, have passed critically important child welfare reform legislation, including the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and the Interethnic Placement provisions of 1996. Together, these laws:

  • make it clear that ensuring children's safety and well-being is the first consideration of the child welfare system;
  • require timely decision-making on behalf of all children in foster care;
  • tear down barriers to adoption, whether based on racial discrimination, geographic boundaries or simply outmoded assumptions about which children are adoptable;
  • provide additional resources for services and encourage greater collaboration to create a network of supports for families at risk or in crisis; and
  • place increased emphasis on accountability and the achievement of positive outcomes for children and families.

In response to these changes in federal law, we have held states accountable for promptly bringing their laws and policies into compliance. After the passage of the Multiethnic Placement Act, for instance, we found that 29 states and the District of Columbia had laws or policies that allowed race-based discrimination in foster care and adoption placements and we worked with them to eliminate discriminatory policies. Similarly, to ensure that states would promptly change laws as required by the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), we provided technical assistance for state legislatures through the National Conference of State Legislatures and others at the same time that we made clear to states the funding consequences of failure or delay in passing appropriate legislation. As of April 1, 1999, 33 states have passed the appropriate legislation to come into compliance with ASFA and another 7 states have passed legislation that is now being reviewed by ACF to determine if it does comply. Two states have passed laws that do not fully conform to ASFA and we will work with them to correct these problems. The remaining states either have not begun a legislative session since passage of ASFA or have legislation that has been introduced but not yet passed. We will continue to hold states accountable to ensure that all come into compliance with ASFA's reforms.

Focus on Results

A key part of our strategy for improving child welfare since early in this Administration has been a focus on developing the capacity to measure outcomes and hold all partners in the system accountable for improved performance. The progress we have made in adoptions demonstrates the effectiveness of this strategy. Tracking adoption outcomes, setting goals for the future, making those goals visible, and providing fiscal incentives tied to results have been key elements of this successful strategy. Another key element, described more fully below, has been the improvement of state capacity to measure adoptions as well as other outcomes, which has required a sustained effort to improve dramatically the quality of state information systems.

To push the results agenda beyond adoption and hold all partners in the child welfare system accountable for the key goals of safety, permanence, and well-being, we must build on the knowledge we have attained through the adoption strategy and three key accomplishments:

  • As required in the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Department has developed, in consultation with the field, an initial list of results measures that can be used to gauge State performance in ensuring child safety and permanence. The list has been published for comment in the Federal Register, and we are now reviewing input received from almost two-thirds of the states, at least 12 organizations, a number of researchers, several members of Congress, and other interested individuals.
  • The Department has conducted 24 pilot tests of an outcomes-based monitoring system and has published proposed regulations that draw substantially on the lessons from those pilots. We currently are reviewing public comments on the regulations and intend to publish a final rule before the end of this year.
  • As a result of federal financial assistance, technical support, and clear accountability that includes phased-in penalties, states are now collecting and able to report much more timely and accurate data on foster care and adoptions. Reporting on child abuse and neglect also has improved considerably, as a result of both financial and technical assistance.

Each of these elements which focus on results is described more fully below.

ASFA Requirement for National Child Welfare Outcome Measures

To develop a list of measures that would reflect the best available knowledge in the field, the Department engaged in extensive consultation, including focus group discussions at major child abuse and child welfare conferences. We also formed a consultation work group comprised of state and local Administrators, state elected officials, advocates, researchers, and others, who met twice and participated in several conference calls to help select and refine measures and discuss their appropriate use. Since publication of the initial list in the Federal Register in February, we have been reviewing the extensive comments that we received and analyzing the availability of data to support suggestions that were made. We plan to finalize the list of measures soon and will then submit the first annual report based on these measures later this year.

Child Welfare Monitoring

As you know, another area where we have been working to increase the focus on outcomes is in our proposed revision of the child welfare monitoring process. In fact, one reason we have been able to make good progress in response to the ASFA requirements for outcome measures is that, as part of our work to revise child welfare monitoring, we already had articulated the basic goals of the child welfare system: child safety, permanence, and child and family well-being. These three goals are now well accepted by the child welfare field and are being used by many states in their own work with child outcome measures.

We had begun work to revise our process for conducting both programmatic reviews and title IV-E foster care eligibility reviews in 1994, when Congress adopted legislation requiring a new approach. The law required the Department, in consultation with state agencies, to promulgate regulations for review of state child and family services programs in order to determine whether programs are in substantial conformity with applicable state plan requirements and federal regulations. Among other requirements, the statute said that the regulations should afford the states an opportunity to develop and implement a corrective action plan, receive technical assistance, and rescind the withholding of funds if a state's failure to conform is ended by successful completion of a corrective action plan.

We realized from the beginning that this statutory requirement offered an important opportunity to redesign the monitoring system to focus on outcomes rather than process and to dramatically improve the way the child welfare system works for children. At the same time, we realized that taking on such an ambitious goal would require major changes in the previous system and that no one person or organization had the answers for how to do it. Therefore, following passage of the new law, we held numerous focus groups to gain public input into the revision of the procedures used for both programmatic and financial reviews. In addition, we determined that we would have to go out and conduct pilot reviews in order to design and field-test an effective and practical way of assessing state performance with an outcome focus. This entire process did result in a delay in issuing regulations for longer than any of us would have wanted, but provided invaluable insight into the major re-design of the monitoring system.

Before publishing proposed regulations, we conducted a total of 24 pilot reviews--12 Child and Family Services Reviews and 12 title IV-E Foster Care Eligibility Reviews. These pilot reviews suggested a number of lessons about approaches to monitoring, and they also served to hold states accountable in new ways as they uncovered both systemic problems and strengths that the old approach to monitoring had not identified.

Among the key lessons from the pilots that drove the design of our proposed monitoring system:

  • A review team comprised of both federal and state staff fostered working partnerships that more effectively assisted states in identifying strategies for corrective action and technical assistance.
  • In the program reviews, where we went beyond state officials and included local caseworkers, recipients of services, foster parents, and other stakeholders in the process, we found that this strategy broadened the perspective of the review.
  • An emphasis on program improvement planning in the eligibility reviews led to specific recommendations for improving the accuracy of title IV-E eligibility determinations, foster care licensing, and the quality of services provided to children.
  • Structuring a review process around the outcomes we want for Children and Families --safety, permanence and well-being -- helped to reorient all parties involved in the review process to focus on the improvements needed to assure those outcomes.
  • By contrast, focusing solely on procedural steps and on the case records that document compliance with those steps is insufficient for improving performance in child welfare services. As reviewers looked at the case folders that had been designed to meet previous requirements, they found that these folders often reflected a focus only on documenting procedural steps. As one reviewer noted, "We got what we asked for." The case folders often did not reflect a focus on the key goals of safety, permanence, or well-being of children.

The work we did and the lessons we learned through the pilot review process informed the development of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) relating to both title IV-E foster care eligibility reviews and Child and Family Services State Plan Reviews. In our NPRM, published on September 18, 1998, we outlined the new procedures that we are proposing for both types of reviews. In response to the Federal Register notice, we received 176 letters primarily from state and local child welfare agencies, national and local advocacy groups for children, educational institutions, and individual social workers. We also appreciated receiving the thoughtful comments of several members of Congress. We have been carefully reviewing and analyzing comments and working to complete the final rule.

Child Welfare Information Systems

The third critical building block of a results-based strategy for improving child welfare performance is improvement in child welfare information systems. The last several years have seen dramatic progress, as a result both of state commitment and federal financial assistance, technical support, and clear accountability.

  • The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 authorized enhanced Federal financial participation at the 75 percent rate for statewide automated child welfare information systems (SACWIS). This enhanced level of funding was initially authorized for three years, through September 30, 1996, but was later extended to September 30, 1997. Federal funds continue to be available at the 50 percent match rate. To date, 19 States have SACWIS systems that are fully operational.
  • On the same day that guidance was issued to the States on applying for SACWIS funds, the Department also released the final regulations for the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). The AFCARS collects automated case-level information on all children in foster care for whom the state child welfare agency has responsibility for placement, care or supervision. It also collects information on children whose adoptions from the foster care system have been finalized. AFCARS data are reported semi-annually.
  • We are now seeing substantial improvements in the completeness and quality of the AFCARS data after an initial developmental period. To encourage the submission of timely and accurate data, our regulations outlined a penalty structure for data submissions that are missing data or that fail certain quality checks. No penalties applied during the first three years (or six reporting periods) of data collection. However, beginning with the submission of data for the period of October 1, 1997 - March 31, 1998, states are liable for penalties, if they fail to correct the problem within six months. Consequently, we are seeing significant improvements in the data. All states and the District of Columbia are now submitting data, whereas in the past only 33 - 37 States submitted data for any given reporting period.
  • In the area of child abuse and neglect, we are also making progress in the reporting of data through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). Almost all states have submitted aggregate data for eight consecutive years (1990-1997) on the numbers and characteristics of children reported to child protective services, providing the most complete trend data ever collected on child abuse and neglect. In response to amendments made in the 1996 reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the number of data elements on which states report annually also has been expanded. In addition to progress in the submission of aggregate data, we are seeing increasing numbers of states submit automated case-level data that enables us to undertake more complex analyses.

The investments of financial and technical assistance resources we are making in information systems and data collection are critical for at least two reasons. First, new information systems will provide State child welfare agencies -- from Administrators down to caseworkers -- with access to expanded and more timely information that will better enable them to serve children and families. Second, the systems will be capable of collecting and reporting the data that States and we need to be able to track outcomes.

Supporting Successful Performance: Technical Assistance, Training, Research, and Demonstration

At the same time that the federal government has a critical role in accountability for results, we also believe it is essential for us to invest in training and technical assistance to build the capacity of states to implement legislative reforms and provide quality services. For instance, the Children's Bureau in ACF provides over $6 million annually for 10 resource centers whose role is to build the capacity of state, local, tribal and other publicly administered or publicly supported child welfare agencies. These resource centers are organized around subject areas (e.g. Special Needs Adoptions, Child Maltreatment, Permanency Planning, Organizational Development, Legal Issues, etc.) and can provide specialized assistance in each of these areas tailored to state needs. The resource centers also develop written materials for broad distribution, such as the guide on the implementation of the Multiethnic Placement Act and the Interethnic Adoption provisions developed by the National Resource Center on Legal and Court Issues, which is operated by the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law. Through training grants, we also have seeded partnerships across the country between schools of social work and public child welfare agencies to improve the training of front line workers and managers.

Another important area of federal activity is the support of research and innovation. I would like to highlight two different areas of activity that will increase our understanding of the child welfare system and promote knowledge about innovative practices in service delivery and financing.

Thanks to the authorization of funds for a longitudinal study of child welfare included in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, we have awarded a contract to the Research Triangle Institute to conduct a National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being. This study will provide nationally representative, longitudinal information on the functioning, service needs and service utilization, and outcomes for Children and Families who are referred to the child welfare system within a one-year period. We expect that the first report from this study, describing the characteristics of the children and families in the sample will be available by the end of 2000.

A second area of activity that we expect to generate important new information is the title IV-E child welfare waiver demonstrations, which this Committee was instrumental in creating. Through the end of FY 98, 18 states ­ the maximum number allowed by the statute -- have received approval for demonstration projects, and we currently are awaiting state responses to the announcement seeking applicants for FY 99 demonstrations. The demonstration projects involve waivers of certain provisions of title IV-E and related regulations, and each one includes a rigorous evaluation. The demonstrations cover a wide range of topics, from broad systems reform strategies to specific projects that focus on addressing substance abuse, increasing the number of adoptions, and testing strategies for assisted guardianship.

Future Directions

We are at a critical juncture in child welfare. We have strengthened the legal framework for children. We have increased attention to outcomes. We have begun to address the capacity needs of both courts and agencies. We have started to build more collaborative arrangements with other human service agencies whose services are critical if we are to meet the needs of children and families in the child welfare system. We have also begun to tap the broader resources of communities to support families before they go into crisis and to help find new families for children in foster care who cannot return home safely.

Of course, there is a great deal remaining to be accomplished. Far too often, despite the dedication and creativity of state and local policy-makers and the extraordinary commitment of front-line child welfare workers, state child welfare systems are overwhelmed by high caseloads, burn-out and high turnover among workers; lack of training and experience among both workers and supervisors; lack of communication across agencies and between state agencies and the community; unclear or shifting missions; and, information systems that ­ despite the recent improvements catalogued above ­ far too often feel like a burden rather than a support to staff. Under these circumstances, changes in policy can take a very long time to translate into true improvements in services for children. And under these circumstances, children's well-being ­ and, too often, even children's live -- are at risk.

Now is the time to continue the momentum of change and seize the opportunities that federal and state policy have created ­ opportunities that build on the dramatic improvements in adoption, the shift to a focus on results, the stronger information systems, and the national investment in technical assistance, research, and demonstration. This is a critical time for the states to take the next steps to move reform from the policy arena to changes in the frontline practice of every child welfare worker, and to build strategies that go far beyond the child welfare agency to involve every community. At the Federal level, we must remain an active participant in helping states achieve these improvements, by exercising leadership, by providing resources and assistance, and by holding the states accountable for achieving positive results. As part of this leadership, we must finalize regulations for monitoring and fully implement the results-based approach to federal oversight.

There also is at least one additional area that warrants increased national attention through passage of federal legislation -- the issue of children aging out of the foster care system. Just last month, this Subcommittee held a hearing on the issue of how to help youth emancipated from foster care become self-sufficient, productive and healthy adults. As you know this is an issue which the President identified as a priority in his FY 2000 budget, and on which we have submitted proposed legislation. We are very much looking forward to working with you to enact a bipartisan bill this year. In doing so, I believe we will make a difference in the lives of the estimated 20,000 young people who are emancipated from foster care each year, just as we have helped to make a difference in the lives of thousands of children who now are living in adoptive families, rather than remaining in the limbo of foster care.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee today. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

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