Leaders of the Senate Finance Committee introduced a bill Wednesday that would incentivize kinship placements in foster care, establish national child welfare standards on worker caseloads, and require better assessment of both child fatalities and the performance of private providers.
The Child Welfare Oversight and Accountability Act of 2017 was introduced by Senate Finance Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the committee’s ranking member. It comes on the heels of a committee investigation and report that highlighted the horrendous performance of The MENTOR Network, a for-profit foster care provider operating in several states, and lax state oversight practices when it comes to monitoring and licensing private providers.
“The lack of oversight of the nation’s child welfare system, at both the state and federal level, is unacceptable,” said Hatch, in a statement announcing the bill.
The committee did not find evidence that private providers are worse managers of foster homes than public agencies. But the report suggests that MENTOR’s performance, and continued operation in some states, is indicative of lax oversight and light monitoring by state agencies.
“The ultimate indictment of this system is there is so little oversight that the government can’t even confirm the gaps that caring advocates tell us are getting worse,” said Wyden, in a statement. “What’s even more outrageous is that efforts to fix flaws in the system have been held up by stonewalling in the United States Senate.”
The bill’s provisions mirror some of the recommendations made in the committee’s report on its investigation.
“Many of the recommendations of the Bipartisan Senate Finance Committee relate directly to enhancing the quality of foster care and child welfare services that children need and deserve,” said Jill Duerr Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California-Berkeley, in an e-mail to The Chronicle of Social Change. “These important suggestions cut across public, private non-profit, and private for-profit agencies, all of whom serve vulnerable families.”
The bill introduced this week would “de-link” federal funds for subsidized guardianship placements from the income eligibility test in Title IV-E, the federal entitlement that reimburses states for placement of foster youth. IV-E foster care only reimburses for children removed from families whose income level is below a threshold established in 1996 by the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a defunct welfare program.
The de-link provision would enable states to draw down federal foster care funds to support kinship guardians for any foster youth, not just those whose birth parents meet an income eligibility test established in 1996.
The committee’s investigation report recommends that Congress consider mandating that Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) penalize states that fail to demonstrate progress on their Child and Family Services Review (CFSR), a periodic assessment conducted by HHS. After three rounds of the CFSR, which began in 2001, no state has passed but almost no state has been hit with a financial penalty.
The bill appears to stop short of that. It would permit states to recoup the penalized funds, but only on the condition that it is reinvested “to address the key identified deficiencies.” Such a provision might incentivize HHS to issue more penalties, as they would no longer necessarily result in sapping resources from child welfare agencies.
Wyden and Hatch would also require more transparency in the relationship between private foster care providers and public child welfare agencies. Each state would be required to maintain a website that discloses any agreements with private providers, noting for each one if it is a nonprofit or for-profit entity.
Further, the bill would require HHS, in an annual child welfare report to Congress already required under IV-E, to report provider-specific information about child outcomes. This means states would have to be able to disaggregate information on child outcomes by which private provider managed the child’s foster care placement.
The bill seeks to embed the regular assessment of child fatalities envisioned in the recommendations last year by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. Each state would be required under Title IV-B of the Social Security Act to conduct an annual review of child fatalities, collecting data on both the circumstances of the death and facts about the child’s history (siblings, presence of mental health or substance abuse issues, etc.).
States would then be required to turn findings and data over to the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention, which is currently operated for HHS by the Michigan Public Health Institute.
Wyden and Hatch would also initiate a path toward establishing national “caseload and workload” standards for child welfare workers. Among the standards to be developed: number of investigations per month by a caseworker, number of active cases, number of families getting preservation services and supervisor-to-caseworker ratios.
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