News Briefs for April 2003

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States Flunk First Child Welfare Test

A new test of state child welfare systems is exposing weaknesses, but critics say the biggest weakness is in the test itself.

Thirty-two states have undergone the initial phase of the Child and Family Services Review (CSFR), the new national assessment mandated by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

All 32 have failed.

The poor marks were expected, and for now each state just has to present a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that sets goals for moving toward compliance. But failure to meet those goals in round two will result in varying degrees of financial penalties for state systems that rely heavily on federal funding.

State and federal officials were not surprised that no states were in “substantial compliance” with more than two of the seven basic standards measured by the test, which includes the collection of statewide data and a performance review of 50 cases selected from three counties in each state.

Future penalties would be applied to money from the Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF) two major foster care funding streams: Titles IV-B and IV-E. The penalty is assessed to a specific sum comprised of a state’s total Title IV-B allotment and 10 percent of its Title IV-E pot.

ACF will give out $290 million in fiscal year 2003 under IV-B and $6.4 billion under Title IV-E.

Susan Orr, who oversees the reviews as director of the ACF, thinks it’s possible for most states to have met the conditions of five or six of the seven compliance standards by the second round of reviews. Orr says failure to meet PIP goals is unlikely because states are required to provide quarterly progress reports.

While federal officials are confident that most states will improve exponentially, critics in the child welfare field wonder whether success on the test matters at all.

“Beyond demonstrating the low quality of most systems around the country, [the reviews] are astoundingly useless,” says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Alexandria, Va. “How can you possibly judge the situation based on 50 case files? You need a sample size of at least 300, and 500 is preferable.”

Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group (CWP), a technical assistance provider for child welfare systems based in Montgomery, Ala., says the number of cases studied in each state is “exceedingly small.” When he directed the child welfare system for Alabama until 1996, says Vincent, “they reviewed a lot more than 50.”

Vincent says it takes CWP about two days to review one case, which requires from 10 to 12 interviews, including with parents and children.

The entire Child and Family Services Review of 50 cases lasts one week.

“I think there were compromises to be expected when such a rigorous test was applied on a national level,” Vincent says. “But to make a compliance judgment based [in part] on 50 cases is difficult to defend.”

Orr says that 50 has always been the figure used in ACF measurements of child welfare systems, namely the Title IV-E eligibility reviews. “I am convinced that [the review] is statistically valid,” Orr says. “It has stood up in court when states objected before” in IV-E eligibility decisions.

She stops short of putting her complete confidence in the state data on which the assessments are based, but says the process itself will help to improve that data. “You only discover problems once you start looking,” she says.

Orr sees some trends emerging from the data though, including significant links between the frequency of caseworker visits to families and greater achievement of positive outcomes, and an association between judicial oversight of foster care and “timely achievement” of objectives for the children.

The first states to face a second review will be Delaware and North Carolina.

—John Kelly

Reports Boost Case for After-School Funds

After-school advocates have stepped up the battle over proposed cuts in federal after-school funding, releasing reports that say the cuts would leave an additional half-million children without after-school care and increase youth crime.

The reports from the Afterschool Alliance and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids are in response to President Bush’s proposal to reduce the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program by 40 percent for fiscal year 2004, from $1 billion a year to $600 million.

That reduced funding would provide services to about 813,000 youths, rather than 1.37 million under the current funding – a drop of 560,000, according to the alliance report, “Closing the Door on Afterschool Programs.”

The CLC funds programs at 7,500 elementary and middle schools in 1,400 communities. The president justified the cuts on the basis of a study by Mathematica Policy Research that said the CLC programs had little measurable impact on youth, especially on academic performance. (“Fed Study, Funding Slash Show Results: Anger,” March)

After-school advocates said the study was flawed and complained that the focus on academic achievement was the wrong standard by which to measure the benefits of such programs.

The advocates face a significant challenge in making their case to the public and Congress at a time when the state and federal governments are cutting budgets, schools are under pressure to boost academic achievement and the public is focused on the war in Iraq. However, public opinion polls consistently show strong public support for after-school program funding.

In an effort to drive the point home to parents and lawmakers on the local level – whom the alliance hopes will press Congress to restore CLC funding – the report uses state-by-state allocation formulas to illustrate the impact of the proposed cuts in each state. In California, for instance, the report says the cuts would mean 80,000 fewer children served in CLC programs.

The study also compares the total amounts of CLC funds requested by agencies in 31 states to the amounts awarded, in an effort to demonstrate that CLC funding is inadequate even at current levels. The CLC program always gets far more requests than it can fulfill. Among the states that fared the worst were Minnesota and Mississippi, where actual funding amounted to 8 and 9 percent, respectively, of the total amount requested.

(To make it easy on those wishing to use the data to press their case, the report has separate, removable pages for each state.)

“This data should frighten anyone who cares about keeping children safe in the afternoons and providing them with academic support,” Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Judy Y. Samelson said in a statement with the report.

Mathematica has said CLC funding proponents are citing studies that don’t meet scientific standards for measuring program impact.

Those proponents also hope to show the public and lawmakers that the proposed cuts in CLC funding will cost more money in the long run. The Fight Crime research brief is based on an analysis of juvenile crime, which typically peaks right after school – from 3 to 6 p.m. The brief estimates that if 570,000 fewer youth attend quality after-school programs, the country “could lose the opportunity to prevent 41,000 crimes” by the time the children reach the age of 20, and to “save taxpayers and crime victims $2.4 billion.”

Contact: Afterschool Alliance (202) 371-1999, www.afterschoolalliance.org; Fight Crime: Invest in Kids (202) 776-0027, www.fightcrime.org.

—Patrick Boyle

Megan’s Law Ruling Helps Youth Agencies

The growing number of youth-serving agencies that use Megan’s Laws to see if prospective youth workers have been convicted of sex offenses can breathe easier thanks to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions last month.

The court rejected two challenges to state Megan’s Laws, which provide information about convicted sex offenders.

The court ruled 9-0 in Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe that Connecticut can publish names, pictures and other information about convicted sex offenders on the Internet without giving them a hearing to determine if they are still dangerous.

Connecticut’s law requires all state residents who have been convicted of certain, mostly sex-related crimes, to also supply their addresses and DNA samples to state police and update them regularly.

In the other case, Smith v. Doe, the court ruled 6-3 that an Alaska law creating a civil regulatory system to promote public safety does not constitute more punishment on top of the previously served sentences of the convicted sex offenders. The law requires sex offenders and kidnappers to provide quarterly updates of their address, physical description and other information that is posted on the state’s website for 15 years.

The rulings are the Supreme Court’s first considerations of Megan’s Laws, which have been enacted in all 50 states. The laws are named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered in 1994 in New Jersey by a convicted sex offender living in the neighborhood.

Because checking the Megan’s Law lists is relatively easy and cheap (often free, or just a few dollars apiece), it has become a popular tool among youth-serving agencies – particularly church-affiliated groups – for screening prospective youth workers, especially volunteers. Last fall Little League Baseball announced that beginning this year, it will require local officials to use the sex offender registries to check each of its more than 1 million volunteers.

In a related development, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a law requiring juvenile sex offenders to register for life. Youth older than 12 can be required to register for life with the state, said the court, but their names and pictures are not to be published on the Internet.

—Melissa Loomis

Caseworker Charged in Disabled Boy’s Death

An Indiana child protection caseworker faces up to 20 years in prison for the death of a disabled 8-year-old boy in his charge.

A Madison County, Ind., grand jury indicted caseworker Mike Warrum last month on the charge of neglecting a dependent, Mark Adam Norris. The boy’s malnourished body was discovered after a fire in his home.

“The top state administrators are responsible for this death and case after case after case of other deaths of at-risk kids in this county,” said Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings, referring to the Indiana Family and Social Service Administration (IFSSA).

But it is Warrum, a caseworker for 10 years for the Division of Family and Children in Madison County, who faces prison if convicted in the death of Norris. An autopsy revealed that Norris, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair, was severely malnourished and had bed sores from lying down for a long time.

Employees at the boy’s school in neighboring Anderson County filed three complaints with state child protection officials, according to school officials. They alleged that the youngster was underfed, had bed sores and wasn’t getting needed medicine.

Following these complaints, a judge ordered Warrum’s agency in November to oversee care of the boy. But under questioning by a prosecuting attorney at a court hearing last month, Warrum testified that he had not seen the family “face to face” since November and relied on updates from another social agency.

Over the years, similar cases of child fatalities involving alleged neglect by caseworkers have grabbed headlines in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Pikesville, Md. Four child-protection workers were indicted for criminal negligence in a youth’s death in Lakeland, Fla., in 1999.

Warrum was placed on 30-days leave without pay pending an internal investigation by the Indianapolis-based IFSSA, under which the Division of Family and Children operates. According to IFSSA spokesman Scott MacGregor, agency investigators concluded that “the work of the caseworker was not up to the agency’s standard.” Warrum filed an appeal that may take months to resolve. He will remain on unpaid leave.

Cummings, who also sought but failed to indict Warrum’s supervisor, Barbara Johnson, has declared war on IFSSA. “There isn’t a single person in this county, be they a law enforcement officer, a physician, a judge, a teacher, or a principal, who believes that these state administrators are even coming close to caring about at-risk kids in our county,” he said.

“We keep insisting on change and the Division of Family and Services (DFS) continues to offer their usual resistance,” said Cummings, a police officer for 15 years before being elected prosecutor in 1994. “But those at the top responsible for the inefficiency that causes these criminal acts ultimately will be held accountable by being put in jail.”

MacGregor said his agency will not comment on Cummings’ remarks.

But Bill Glick, director of the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force, said, “While there are holes in the system throughout, there is no cause for the indictment of the whole system. We don’t have uncaring administrators. We have caring people at the top who serve on statewide coalitions and care about the welfare of kids.”

Glick also wondered about the role of Cummings’ office. “Where was the prosecutor’s office in all this? After the sick boy’s prolonged absence from school, the most they did was send a letter to the father. They were aware of the complaints about the boy’s physical condition. This is a complicated, emotionally charged case.”

Contact: Rodney Cummings, (765) 641-9585; Scott MacGregor (317) 233-4454.

—Bill Alexander

Money Melts Enrollment Freeze at AmeriCorps

The Bush administration has requested an additional $64 million from Congress to help cover a shortfall in the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) trust fund that provides scholarships to AmeriCorps members.

Last November the CNCS suspended enrollment of new AmeriCorps members to give the corporation time to tally how many members it had and how much money it needed to continue paying their education awards. The corporation determined it had enrolled 53,000 members in 2000, exceeding its target of 50,000, and 59,200 members in 2001.

Corporation officials acknowledged that CNCS lacked appropriate accounting measures to track members, and did not seek a 2002 budget increase for the trust fund. The corporation suspended enrollment when it determined the trust fund might fall short.

“The pause was a result of the corporation’s limited procedures for accurately projecting future enrollments in AmeriCorps and reconciling them with available funding in the National Service Trust,” according to background information posted on the AmeriCorps website.

President Bush requested the $64 million from Congress early last month to cover prior obligations, complete a “comprehensive corrective action plan” to strengthen financial management and to support the more than 50,000 AmeriCorps members enrolled in fiscal year 2003.

The administration and corporation officials blamed the shortfall on fiscal 2000 and 2001 rescissions of $111 million. “These rescissions were adopted based on reports resulting from inaccurate procedures for determining federal obligations,” the Office of Management and Budget said in its request to Congress.

Officials also said the $64 million request would not affect fiscal 2003 budget authority or the president’s fiscal 2004 budget request, and touted the request as a “no-cost” solution.

Congressional appropriators questioned that last claim. “We’re not convinced of that,” said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. “We received their request and will give it due consideration.”

The corporation lifted the pause in enrollment March 11, citing the administration proposal and enactment of the 2003 appropriations bill.

AmeriCorps members, who serve 10 to 12 months, receive an educational stipend of $4,725 for college or graduate school, or to pay off certain school loans. Many members also receive a living allowance of $9,300.

Bush wants to expand AmeriCorps to 75,000 members in fiscal year 2004.

Contact: (202) 606-5000, www.nationalservice.org.

—Andrew D. Beadle

Briefly…

National Youth Service Day: Youth around the country will participate in local service projects from April 11 to 13 to celebrate National Youth Service Day. The weekend is coordinated by Youth Service America and sponsored by various media outlets. Organizers hope to coordinate projects for more than a million youth. Contact: www.ysa.org.

More Zero Tolerance Tales:
A 6-year-old Ohio boy was suspended for 10 days from his elementary school for having a plastic knife in his backpack. Kevin Long picked up the knife from the school cafeteria and wanted to bring it home to show
his mother he knew how to use it, according to his mother, Donna Long.

Death Penalty Foes Beseech Pope: Led by Rev. Thomas Masters, president of Under Our Wings, a 34-person delegation from the United States visited the Vatican last month to ask for Pope John Paul II’s help in stopping the execution and life sentences of people who commit crimes as children.

Largest Foster Care System Revamps:
As part of a lawsuit settlement, Los Angeles County has agreed to revamp its foster care system, the largest in the nation, with 50,000 children. The county will immediately close a 150-bed children’s shelter and begin developing an intensive “wraparound” model for comprehensive mental and health services for abused and neglected children.

Welfare Overhaul Fine for Kids: A new three-city study found no evidence that children of low-income families were harmed when their mothers moved from welfare to work. “Mothers’ Transitions from Welfare to Work and the Well-Being of Preschoolers” suggests that a mother’s entry into the work force is related to improvements in adolescents’ mental health and exits from employment are linked to increasing behavioral problems. The $20 million study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and conducted at the height of the economic boom in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, appeared in the March 7 issue of Science.

Angry Parents a Nuisance: Eighty-four percent of the 3,300 parents, coaches, youth sport administrators and children who responded to a SportingKid magazine survey said they’ve witnessed parents shouting, berating or using abusive language toward children, parents or coaches during a youth sporting event.