After waiting several years for a system to collect data on youth aging out of foster care, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) wants to know what the holdup is.
So do a lot of child welfare advocates, who say the delay makes it impossible to tell which services are helping and which need to be changed.
In 1999, the Foster Care Independence Act was passed to much fanfare, as it doubled the federal commitment to services for older youth in the foster care system. Within a year, the law said, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was to begin collecting state-level data that would help measure the act’s successes and shortcomings.
Eight years later, that process is still not in place, which foster care providers and advocates say makes it difficult to demonstrate success to potential funders.
“We need better data about what states are doing with their
Stangler: “We need better data.”
independent living programs” under the law, says Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.
“Individual states might have outcome reviews,” says Robin Nixon, executive director of the National Foster Care Coalition. But “there’s no way to develop a national or regional picture about how this program is helping young people.”
Why is HHS dragging its feet? McDermott asked a panel of experts at a July hearing hosted by the House Ways and Means subcommittee on income security and family support, which he chairs. Is it that they have no interest in the results, he asked, or is that “if we found the data, we would have to do something about it?”
Data and Dollars
FCIA created the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which provides states with money to use for transitional and independent living services, job training and educational benefits. It lets states use Medicaid funds to cover foster youth through their 21st birthdays.
McDermott: “At least give me a guess.”
The act called for HHS to submit a plan and timetable for collecting data from states, and for penalizing any state that chose not to comply, “within 12 months after the date of the enactment” of FCIA. That task is to be overseen by the Children’s Bureau in the Administration for Children and Families, which is part of HHS.
Cumulative data could benefit providers of services to aging-out youth in several ways, such as:
Funding: One of the Bush administration’s chief philosophies on funding social programs is that government funding should help to leverage more private resources over time. “I think that’s appropriate,” says Eckerd Youth Alternatives Program Officer Jane Soltis. “But if we’re going to encourage that, we need to be aggressive about really collecting data in real time. The private side of partnerships won’t invest over the long haul if we don’t.”
In addition, she says, it’s hard “to turn to the government and say we need more money when we can’t prove the money we’ve allocated is doing good.”
Best practices: “I do a lot of technical assistance with the states,” Nixon says. “When I get a call from a state person saying, ‘Tell me some effective practices of other states,’ I can’t. I have no data consistent across states that can be used for comparison.”
The Need: Data collection is necessary to gauge how much is spent for each child going through the aging-out process, Nixon says. “There’s a real lack of sense of the dollars being spent relative to number of kids eligible.”
Chafee funding has hovered around $140 million for years, and the number of youths between 14 and 20 in foster care totals 137,712, according to HHS data from 2005. That’s about one-quarter of all youth in foster care.
“In order to determine if the dollars for the Chafee program are sufficient to accomplish the goals of the program, you have to be able to look at data from different states,” Nixon says. “How can you tell if you have enough money for a service if you can’t even do a simple equation to determine the cost per unit of service or the cost per youth served?”
With Chafee funds working out to a national average of $1,000 per youth each year, Nixon suspects the data would show Congress what it doesn’t want to know. “As a field, we’re operating under the illusion that that money is supposed to take 100 percent of the responsibility for preparing kids for adulthood,” she says. “And its not. It is a small part.”
The delay might be chalked up to a Republican administration’s reluctance to make the states do something at Washington’s behest – at least if the administration isn’t hot on the idea in the first place. Perhaps that even trumps the fact that the Bush administration has argued that program funding be based on evaluations of impact.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted the delay back in 2004, in a report on the Chafee programs. GAO Director Cornelia Ashby testified at the July hearing and said, “It’s a state issue, [HHS] will tell you. … They do not want to burden the states.”
“I don’t buy that argument,” says Soltis of Eckerd. “You shouldn’t be in business if you can’t collect data. Give me a break. You don’t set up any kind of program without starting from day one with a clear look at outcomes you want and data you need.”
“You people are part of the system. At least give me a guess” about why HHS is taking so long, McDermott implored at the hearing. Left unclear was why HHS wasn’t invited to answer the question.
Ashby gave it a shot, revealing frustration. “At HHS, the people I have worked with on child welfare just do not seem to be proactive in feeling they have a responsibility” when it comes to data collection, she said. “So [HHS] allows the slow mechanism of bureaucracy to not work, and years go by.”
So maybe it’s bureaucratic sloth more than calculated noncompliance.
Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Susan Orr declined to comment on the delay.
ACF spokeswoman Tara Wall says that the agency is “in the process of working on [a data collection system] internally” and intends to implement a process. Wall gave no timetable, although Soltis says she’s heard an HHS target date of May 2008.
ACF did seek comment this year on a proposed system. It would essentially base outcomes on a sampling of 60 percent of aging-out youth in most states and all youth in small states.
Getting a sample from most states isn’t good enough, Soltis says: “We should be tracking all the kids. And they need to measure a lot more than what they’re proposing.”
Meanwhile, each year about 24,000 more youth age out of foster care without a permanent living arrangement.