At Child Welfare Agencies, the Feds Are Coming

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By Amy Bracken

Federal officials will start visiting state child welfare agencies to see how they're serving kids, under a more stringent review process that takes effect this month.

Rather than just reviewing paperwork, officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will interview children, parents, foster parents and service providers.

The new regulations stem in part from federal legislation requiring HHS to reform its old system of child welfare monitoring, which focused almost entirely on the accuracy and completeness of records and not on the system's impact on children and families.

The paper review system was "widely regarded as a joke," said Karabelle Pizzigati, public policy director at the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), who described the new process as "promising." There are, however, questions about whether state agencies will have the resources to bring their systems into full compliance with HHS demands.

The change is outlined in HHS's "Child Welfare Final Rule," to go into effect in the last week of March. The Final Rule is part of a new federal review system, described in the document's executive summary as a more "child and family-centered approach," which includes measuring states' quality of services and outcome results, imposing tough new penalties, and helping states undertake corrective action plans.

There are four major components of the Final Rule, which was published in the Federal Register in September 1998 for public comment:

  • an update to the federal foster care program's review process;
  • establishment of a new approach to monitoring state child welfare programs that focuses on results;
  • strengthened corrective action and penalty process for the Multiethnic Placement Act; and
  • regulation of provisions of the Adoption and Safe Families Act.

To determine quality of service, federal staff will measure state agencies' compliance with requirements set by the Social Security Act regarding child protective services, foster care, adoption, and family preservation and support services.

"This is the first time that there's ever been a systematic in-depth assessment of state performance that goes well beyond just process," says Betsey Rosenbaum, director of the Children and Family Services Department of the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). Formerly the American Public Welfare Association, APHSA is a D.C.-based member organization of state human service agencies, more than 1,200 local human service agencies, and several thousand individuals. "States were not pleased with the process approach to performance." The new rules are "Promising ... and will require a lot of work on the part of the federal government and the states."

"It's going to be a partnership between the feds and the state" that is being reviewed, says Patricia Montoya, commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), part of HHS.

One big change that should benefit state agencies: The former system did not give them a chance to develop plans for improvement before they were penalized for noncompliance. Now states will have two years after the federal review to make improvements before penalties (up to 14 percent of administrative funds) are incurred.

CWLA's Pizzigati expressed skepticism about the Final Rule in two areas: resources, and recognizing differences between and within states. She said she is "skeptical as to whether the resource needs will be met" for agencies to make changes. "That's going to be the biggest challenge."

In addition, she warned, "Given that there is currently - and always have been and probably always will be - significant variations between states, and communities within states, as we put these new reviews into place, we do have to be" careful that HHS assessments are sensitive to those differences.

HHS will begin its new reviews with public agencies in 17 states.

The department says that more than half a million children are in foster care, most of whom will be in the system for at least two years, and approximately one-fifth of whom will be in the system for at least five.

Contact: The Administration for Children and Families at (202) 401-9215, or