Failing New Test of Child Welfare System
from The Associated Press, August 19, 2003
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Not a single
state has passed a rigorous test of its ability to protect
children from child abuse and to find permanent homes for
children who often languish in foster care.
The 32 states evaluated so far could lose millions of dollars
from the federal government if they fail to fix problems within
a few years.
The problems of child welfare get periodic attention, usually
following the tragic death of a child. The Child and Family
Service Reviews are the first time federal officials have tried
to measure how well children are faring across state
systems created to protect them -- but that often fall short.
The reviews ask whether children are bouncing from one foster
home to the next, never able to put down roots; whether siblings
taken from their parents are kept together or pulled apart;
whether it takes a state too long to finalize adoptions or to
send children back to their biological parents.
Affected are nearly 550,000 children in foster care and an
estimated half million others living at home but under state
"There is a lot of work to be done," said Joan Ohl, commissioner
of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families. "It's a
In the past, states were evaluated on bureaucratic benchmarks.
Now, the questions are how many children are abused again after
entering the system and whether parents are getting promised
The reviews merge dozens of questions into seven "outcomes"
Fourteen states have failed all seven. An additional 14, plus
the District of Columbia, have failed six of the seven, and four
states failed five. No state has passed more than two.
"We set a very high bar and we don't apologize for that bar,"
Ohl said in an interview.
Problems were found in every state:
In Tennessee, the agency did not respond to abuse reports in a
timely manner nearly 30 percent of the time.
In Michigan, more than one in four parents with children in
foster care said they had not received needed services such as
parenting classes or drug treatment.
In Ohio, 27 percent of the time the agency did not make a
diligent effort to help children in foster care maintain
connections to family and community.
The reviews have spurred change.
Georgia began offering assistance to foster parents after it
found more than one child out of every 100 was abused in a
foster home, almost twice the national standard. Initiatives
include a telephone help line, training on dealing with behavior
problems and respite care to give foster parents time without
After California was found to take too long to finalize
adoptions, the state began combining its screening programs for
potential foster and adoptive parents. That means the state will
not have to conduct a second screening if foster parents decide
States acknowledge the problems and welcome a clear set of
benchmarks for improvement, said Robert Lindecamp, director of
the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators.
"States don't have a problem with having a high standard," he
One problem common to all states is the huge load handled by
child welfare caseworkers. The reviews found that families do
better when caseworkers make more visits, but that requires
additional money that budget-strapped states are not inclined to
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