Houston, We Have a Compliance Problem

There are a handful of programs that drive much of the federal investment on youth in crisis, namely those involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems (or both).

Sadly, recent developments call into question whether taxpayers are getting what they paid for when it comes to these vital programs.

In the realm of child abuse and neglect, largely the purview of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, there a number of big programs:

Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the multi-billion-dollar entitlement through which HHS shares the cost of foster care with states for eligible youth.

  • Title IV-B, which parcels out funds to states for family preservation
  • The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, which funds states’ efforts to collect critical information about child welfare services.
  • The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which provides funds to assist in investigation and prosecution of abuse and neglect.

But for all these big programs something appears afoul. As we reported last week, a report released by the Children’s Advocacy Institute and First Star paints a fairly damning picture of HHS’ efforts to ensure that states are doing what they’re supposed to, or paying the price for not doing so.

Click here to read our entire breakdown, but the gist is this: HHS is in some cases not conducting certain compliance checks mandated by law. Meanwhile, the report found that not a single state was in substantial conformity during the first two rounds of Child Family Services Review (CFSR). Despite this, enforcement seems lacking, only two states have seen financial penalties as a result of being out of compliance despite clear guidelines for HHS when considering who to ding.

If HHS has a differing opinion of its own performance on these metrics, it is not saying. Officials at the HHS Administration for Children and Families passed on responding to report authors when this report was in draft form; they passed again when Youth Services Insider went looking for the agency’s perspective.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency really only has one juvenile justice program to patrol: The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which 49 states participate in (not Wyoming). States receive formula funding for complying with the act’s four core requirements, and lose 20 percent of the grant for each requirement they are not in compliance with.

The recent history of compliance monitoring at OJJDP suggests an inverse to the CFSR scenario: most states pass JJPDA compliance, and very few states are penalized.

That would seem to be a mark of success for the act. But a recent kerfuffle, prompted by statements from a whistleblower from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) suggests that failure might have been covered up for expediency.

The OIG report, posted on the Justice Department website in September, cites a Wisconsin compliance monitor who told the OIG that he knowingly submitted false numbers that would put the state in compliance with the requirement to not deinstitutionalize status offenders. The OIG report also states that the state was not monitoring the full universe of correctional locations.

Why? According to the report, “He was afraid to submit numbers that showed Wisconsin was out of compliance because Wisconsin…would lose grant money and potentially affect his employment.”

Part of the issue in Wisconsin is the jailing of foster youths who abscond from group homes. That is surely stoking the ire of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.), a longtime foster youth advocate in the Senate and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Grassley penned a letter last month to Justice demanding answers. A month ago, he put his name on a placeholder bill in support of reauthorizing the JJDPA. Now, he is awaiting answers from Justice on nine questions about the way OJJDP handles compliance monitoring.

If you are a champion of the JJDPA, the word you are looking for is: “Yikes.” Because the factors in play here are certainly not unique to Wisconsin.

In tight fiscal times, how hard is it to imagine some other compliance monitor juking stats to avoid costing their state money?

The amount of dollars going to states in exchange for compliance has been decimated by budget cuts over the past four years, and a portion of these funds goes toward that actual monitoring process. Is Wisconsin the only state not monitoring the full scope of places that juveniles might be mixed in with adults or detained as status offenders?

It is all pretty depressing, and here’s why. There is only one thing worse than ignoring the needs and safety of at-risk youths. It’s saying you are paying attention, and turning away.

John Kelly is the editor of The Chronicle for Social Change.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

2 Comments

  1. Well done, John …. compliance monitoring can be complicated. But to be sure, eventually it will surface when it isn’t done well (either negative youth or system outcomes surface). A larger conundrum is the issue of declining incentives to do it well — if a state loses the very money needed to comply with the Act, why engage with OJJDP to begin with? Of course it’s the right thing to do for kids, but values and moral arguments are often subjugated to budget conversations in public policy. Let’s hope that all states do the right thing and look after the needs of youth properly, and not just for the fiscal impacts/incentives.

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