Much has been written and said about what the nation might expect from a Trump Administration on a variety of issues, ranging from health care to immigration to foreign policy. Little attention, at least publicly, has been devoted to an issue that touches the lives of millions of the most vulnerable children and families: child welfare.
Today, as many as one million children annually are abused and neglected by those to whom their care is entrusted; over 1,500 of them die as a result of that abuse and neglect. The child protective services (CPS) system, charged with investigating suspected instances of abuse and neglect, is annually overwhelmed by reports involving 3.2 million children. Meanwhile, annual caseworker turnover rates can approach 30 percent due to burnout and low pay, and more than 400,000 children call foster care their home.
These statistics are unacceptable, but there are opportunities for a Trump administration to do better at keeping our children safer and living in permanent families.
One good starting place is the list of recommendations included in the 2016 report of the National Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. As a member of that commission, I helped draft dozens of recommendations, all of which could help reduce not just fatalities, but instances of abuse and neglect. Three of those recommendations seem especially important for the Trump Administration to consider.
Provide Flexible Funding
The federal government currently spends $7.8 billion annually through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to support children in foster care. However, none of that funding can be used to provide services to children or their families. Federal funding for children and family services, in which the federal government currently invests $856 million a year, is provided through Title IV-B of the Social Security Act.
In other words, the federal government spends nearly ten times as much on housing children in foster care as it does on services to ameliorate the effects of child abuse and neglect or to prevent child abuse and neglect from happening.
States need greater flexibility to use the funding available through Title IV-E for services, especially prevention services. Indeed, over half of the states currently have a waiver from the federal government to do just that, but those waivers are scheduled to end in 2019. The Trump Administration could extend those waivers so that states can continue to have more flexibility in the use of Title IV-E funding.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, which passed in the House but not the Senate last year, would provide flexibility in IV-E, but only in limited circumstances and only to prevent the need for foster care. Alternatively, the Trump Administration could propose legislation to fund foster care through block grants so that states could use that funding for services, including:
- Community-based child abuse and neglect prevention services
- Raising the pay of CPS workers
- Providing treatment services to abused and neglected children
- Paying for parenting skills training and other services so that children can return to their homes safely
Invest Appropriate Resources
While flexible funding will help states, it is not enough; the child welfare system is underfunded. As a result, proven prevention strategies go unimplemented and CPS agencies may struggle to attract and retain skilled caseworkers. Children in foster care who are victims of abuse and neglect may go untreated for the trauma they experienced. Funding flexibility will help, but states also need more federal funding for their child welfare systems.
Support Data Sharing for Child Protection
If the federal government wants to help states prevent child abuse and neglect, it could help them get better at sharing information across systems. Today, there are too many disparate information systems that can’t talk to one another easily, or at all.
So, for example, when an abusive spouse is released from prison, the family and local law enforcement may not be alerted. Or when a child shows up in an emergency room with multiple fractures, that information may not get relayed to a CPS worker in a timely manner. The Trump Administration could spearhead the development of a technology infrastructure that can help communities utilize real-time data sharing from a variety of sources to better protect children.
Improving the infrastructure of the nation’s child welfare system is arguably as important as improving the transportation infrastructure. The Trump Administration could help make this possible by providing states with the flexibility, funding and information technology needed to improve outcomes for children.
Wade Horn, Ph.D., is a director with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s public sector practice. He formerly served as the assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.