Federal Child Welfare Test Fails Children

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Last year, I had my first experience with the federal Child and Family Services Review (CFSR), which many people in child welfare have come to dread. This is the process in which each state is assessed once every six years for what the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF) calls “substantial conformity with certain federal requirements for child protection, foster care, adoption, family preservation, family support and independent living services.”

A 60-person team from the ACF’s Children’s Bureau traveled to Vermont in order to read case records, review policies and meet with local child welfare officials, caseworkers, parents, foster youth and stakeholders. That’s where I came in. Because I am executive director of an organization funded by the Vermont Department of Children and Families, the department invited me to participate.

In the lead-up to the visit by the feds, several meetings were held between stakeholders such as myself and Vermont child welfare officials. The officials said they were fairly certain of which areas would be labeled as a “strength” for the state, and which would be cited as an “area needing improvement.” At one meeting I asked, “How do you think you will do in terms of your response rate to abuse and neglect calls?”

I asked this because I knew from the Federal Child Maltreatment 2005 report that among 38 states examined, Vermont had the lowest “screened in” rate – that is, the rate at which calls alleging abuse or neglect of a child are accepted to be investigated. The national rate for the investigation of abuse and neglect calls is 62 percent, while Vermont’s rate is 19 percent. Naturally, I deduced that this would be an area of great concern to the CFSR team.

A Vermont official answered, “The CFSR doesn’t cover this.”

I slumped in my chair. The only thing I could think to say was, “I can’t believe that. I am absolutely amazed.”

I do not believe that states should investigate every single allegation of abuse or neglect that comes to their attention. According to the federal Child Maltreatment report, Arizona does this – it has a 99.2 percent acceptance rate – and I think it is a mistake. There is no easier way for a person to seek revenge on a relative, ex-spouse or neighbor than by calling the local child protection agency and stating, “I think I see bruises on his daughter.” Next thing you know, an investigator is knocking on the door. Some element of judgment must come into play before launching a full-fledged investigation.

But in my mind, the CFSR is severely deficient by not even looking at this. The CFSR measures 45 items, including the stability of foster care placements, placement with siblings, worker visits with children and how quickly the child welfare system acts on cases it has accepted for investigation. But the CFSR does not rate how a state’s child protection system performs on the very bedrock of its mission: How well does it respond to claims of child abuse or neglect?

It is incredible to me that the Children’s Bureau would use its time and money to visit all 50 states once every six years, but fail to evaluate how each state performs in this most basic of measures.

To be fair, the final report that the bureau issued for Vermont included several notations related to this issue, such as, “Stakeholders noted that as a result of this uncertainty, many reports are screened out (that is, they are not referred for an investigation or assessment), which can result in many children being left at risk of harm.” Nevertheless, for the federal government to not have this as one of the official items by which a state is rated, and to count on stakeholders to speak up to point it out, is a major failing of the oversight process.

To their credit, Vermont child welfare officials have decided to change the way they respond to abuse and neglect calls. They are creating a central intake team to receive calls, with one toll-free number for citizens to call to report suspected abuse or neglect (a common practice in some other states). Vermont is revising its policies for the acceptance and investigation of such calls.

I hope this brings Vermont’s 19 percent acceptance rate closer to the national average. If that means hiring more investigators, thus driving up costs, so be it. I believe the public will support expenditures that concern child safety.

Even more importantly for all states, I hope the federal government reassesses its methodology for overseeing the performance of child welfare systems in this crucial area.