Tag Archives: ChildWelfare

Shame on U.S. – Our Federal Child Welfare System is a National Disgrace

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In the world of child welfare, there is a lot of good happening.  We have good people with good hearts working hard to keep children protected from abuse and neglect.  We have hard working individuals who put in hours and hours to make sure children who have been abused and neglect are able to live in safer environments and experience better outcomes than they would otherwise see.  We have policy advocates working diligently to inform evidence-based policy reforms.  And we have representatives in office pushing for laws that will continue to improve the child protective system.  All of this good has led to better outcomes for some children but, unfortunately, there are still tens of thousands of children across the country falling through the cracks the size of the Grand Canyon.

So, the question remains….why does our system fall so far short?  Why do so many of these children have outcomes including PTSD, unemployment, homelessness, sex trafficking victimization and imprisonment at rates far above any other group?  Why do we keep seeing headlines about a broken system, a system that repeatedly allows children to die due to abuse and neglect even after local child protective services have been alerted to their precarious state?  It’s a national disgrace.

The answer is not simple and has multiple layers.  Sure there are some bad actors out there.  Additionally, the child protective system is woefully underfunded (or at a minimum inappropriately funded).  But the answer can also be seen when you look at our federal child welfare structure.  Every state in the union accepts money (totaling billions of dollars) from our federal government in exchange for agreeing to follow federal requirements in administering the State’s child welfare system.  This places the federal government as the backbone of our child welfare system so it is worthwhile to take a look at the glaring holes that exist in our policy and the enforcement of that policy.

In a brand new study, Shame on U.S., the Children’s Advocacy Institute uses the federal government’s own internal documents as the basis to criticize all three branches of the federal government for being derelict in their duties to the most vulnerable children in our nation.  States are consistently failing to protect abused and neglected children but the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) rarely exercises its oversight powers to ensure state compliance with federal mandates – essentially becoming the states’ complicit partner. HHS often takes on a passive monitor role, allowing states to self-certify compliance and set lower standards and performance expectations for themselves — all of which allow glaring inadequacies to go unabated.  In many instances, private citizens have been forced to turn to the courts to seek California’s compliance with federal child welfare laws but federal courts have been reluctant to find that federal laws allow aggrieved children and families a private right to sue.  And, unfortunately, Congress has shown little appetite to address these issues by plugging the holes where the executive and judicial branches are dropping the ball or failing to act.  This completes a trifecta of inertia and neglect and often leaves advocates, and more importantly the children they aim to protect, spinning in a circular trap.

Shame on U.S. connects all these dots for the first time, holding all three branches accountable, pointing out their inter-related failures and the critical need to cure these deficiencies.  There are concrete action steps that can be taken by each branch to mitigate the current harm.

HHS must:

  • Toughen its oversight and enforcement activities to ensure that each state operates its child welfare programs consistent with federal law, and HHS must impose serious consequences when states fall short;
  • Revise its evaluation program to end the process that allows failing states to meet a compromised set of lowered expectations;
  • Utilize its rulemaking authority in a more robust manner with regard to the interpretation of federal child welfare laws. Regulations are enforceable. Anything less is not.

Congress needs to:

  • Provide clear private remedies for children within all federal child welfare statutes, to enable private litigants to seek judicial recourse when violations occur;
  • Repeal or revise current law to ensure that all foster children are treated equally without regard to their economic status, that states comply with all aspects of all child welfare laws or suffer real consequences, and that HHS plays an active and vigilant role in ensuring state compliance via monitoring and enforcement activities;
  • Eliminate the “look back” provision that makes a child’s eligibility for federal foster care funds dependent on whether the child’s family would have qualified for AFDC in 1996. It is arcane, primitive, and hurts children and families;
  • Impose consequences on HHS for failing to follow through with its oversight and enforcement responsibilities;
  • Restore and reinforce funding for child welfare programs at levels that ensure an effective child welfare system, enact comprehensive child welfare finance reform to address a wide range of problems — such as a complex mix of mandatory and discretionary funding that results in haphazard payments to states, swaths of uncoordinated funding from disparate sources with inconsistent mandates; a host of unfunded mandates; and a dearth of accountability for the money spent by the states.

The federal judiciary should:

  • Acknowledge its role as a check and balance to lax executive branch enforcement of child welfare laws, and resolve any ambiguity in federal law as to whether children and families have a private right of action in their favor;
  • Ensure that states entering into consent decrees bring their child welfare systems into compliance with federal law in a more timely manner than is currently the case.

Support for these changes should cross political party borders.  The children these policies are designed to protect are, in a very real sense, our children.  Our representatives have crafted laws allowing for the removal of these children from their parents.  Our government then steps in and takes these children with the understanding that we, as a system, can protect and raise these children better than their parents can.  Leaving these gaping holes in our child protective system is a true national disgrace and each day that passes while we allow them to remain – Shame on U.S.

You can find the report at http://www.caichildlaw.org/Shame_on_US.htm

Author: Christina Riehl, Senior Staff Attorney at CAI 

Re-alignment or Retreat from Responsibility?

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Looking back on legislative developments having an impact on California’s children in 2012, it is hard not to notice two things that smashed into each other:

  • The State has effectively ended any funding for child welfare, instead “re-aligning” that funding responsibility to California’s 58 very different counties and assuring them additional programmatic flexibility.

  • Outside news reports and audits excoriated the child welfare system in Los Angeles County, the State’s largest.

As the Los Angeles Times wrote in February of 2013 about an internal L.A. County review done in 2012, a “stifling bureaucracy” was impeding effective child welfare:

“Investigations tend to rely on bureaucratic rules, not common sense and close observation, the report found. The department has issued more than 4,000 pages of policies detailing how social workers should do their jobs.

‘Creating social work road maps with this level of ‘how-to’ is like expecting a therapist to use a script that tells her what questions to ask and what responses to expect from her client in a therapy session,” the report said.

Lowell Goodman, a spokesman for the union representing the social workers, said, ‘Even the finest social workers in the country could not perform their best work in this system.’

‘Paperwork and the relentless attention to following [thousands of pages of] policies supersedes hands-on social work in importance,’ he said.”

An audit by the State Bureau of State Audits found similar problems and has noted that the County has not addressed them. [1]

County failures in administering child welfare are not new.  Sacramento County, for example,also hired an outside consultant to review its operations after a spate of grisly child deaths were reported in the Sacramento Bee.  The consultant in its final report in 2009 identified a large number of bureaucratic impediments to social worker effectiveness that imperiled the lives of children. For example, the Sacramento County report found:

“The County’s guidelines for its social workers contain 167 policies spanning more than 1,300 pages. Over 60 percent of these guidelines were last created or updated more than five years ago. CPS’s existing guidelines include a mix of outdated or conflicting guidance, caused, for example, when the division created a new guideline without revoking or amending a prior guideline document related to the same procedure.”

“The current CPS requirements and  operating structure hamper its ability to provide child welfare services effectively and efficiently.  Moreover, inconsistent procedures and failure to follow best practices have resulted in negative  outcomes for some children in the County’s child welfare system. Utilizing poor practices has also resulted in families and children not receiving the best services to meet their needs.  Consequently, the issues within these families that brought them into the child welfare system in  the first place may continue to be unaddressed, leaving children at risk. Improving CPS  operations and processes is imperative if the County is to address these issues and optimize its  service delivery to families and children in the future.” 

Likewise, in response to news stories in Los Angeles County about CPS performance, SEIU Local 721 in 2011 authored an exhaustive and detailed set of recommendations for improving and streamlining operations and enhancing social worker productivity. Most of the suggestions could be implemented within existing resources. Suggestions included how to eliminate duplicative paperwork, improve coordination between departments and employees, and shift staffing to ensure greater productivity and job satisfaction. But, these suggestions have been largely ignored.

And all of these county-level failings took place during the world prior to re-alignment, when the State had the power of the purse to influence policy.  Now, while the federal government continues to look to the State as the one throat to choke when it comes to ensuring its Title IV-E money is well spent, the State has less of a central role in guiding child welfare policy than perhaps ever before.

What is clear is this:  only until State and federal governments get serious about monitoring how federal tax dollars are spent will California’s abused and neglected children obtain the level of care and services they deserve.

 

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