ATLANTA — Over the last decade, the federal government has withheld money from four states and the District of Columbia for the poor performance of their child protection systems.
The effectiveness of those federal reviews and the wisdom of penalizing cash-strapped child welfare agencies has been a matter of debate among experts in the field. That issue re-emerged in September when two child protection workers were arrested and accused of manipulating data so it would appear they were meeting internal guidelines related to the federal review process.
State child protection agencies are heavily funded by the U.S. government. Started around 2000, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families began reviewing state-run programs to determine how they were serving children. Prior reviews focused largely on whether federal money was spent correctly.
Penalties from that process have cost child welfare agencies nearly $11 million and counting in Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., according to ACF spokesman Kenneth Wolfe. Sanctions against South Carolina and Rhode Island are ongoing, while the penalties against the other states have ended. The penalties are relatively small compared to overall agency budgets, but they still sting.
The budget for Georgia’s child protection system fell from $487 million in 2008 before the Great Recession to $395 million now, a cut of roughly 18 percent, according to estimates compiled by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“In these economic times, it’s probably not achieving what it was originally desired to achieve,” said Alberta Ellett, a professor studying social work at the University of Georgia, who described the process as well-intentioned though problematic.
The reviews follow the same format in each state. During Georgia’s last exam in 2007, a team reviewed a state self-assessment and statewide data then reviewed 65 case files on children in three counties, including metro Atlanta. They also interviewed children, parents, foster parents, child welfare workers and other people with ties to the agency.
Examiners said Georgia did not meet seven broad outcomes measuring performance, though it praised the state for having a low rate of children re-entering foster care and keeping foster children placed near their birth parents. The report faulted Georgia in several areas, including not consistently assessing family needs, a problem officials blamed partly on not enough parental engagement and a general lack of contact between caseworkers and parents.
Other states had trouble too. Budget cuts and a foster home shortage hampered South Carolina in finding permanent homes for children and placing children in foster care with their siblings, according to the reviews. Rhode Island was faulted for not keeping children in their homes when possible and for not having enough quality caseworker visits to parents and children.
States must create improvement plans to deal with problems. In its last 188-page submission, Georgia acknowledged it sometimes focused too much on helping individual children without fully considering other factors present in a home.
“While a lot of good work is being done for the target child, this practice leaves other children vulnerable, does not always address root causes (which often involve the parents/family), and fails to strengthen the family’s ability to provide for the needs of all children,” state officials wrote.
Georgia promised to create a new strategy emphasizing family treatment. The state also agreed to better train its workers so they more promptly and consistently processed reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, a concern raised in the federal review. The financial penalties against Georgia ended in late 2009.
“There was a great deal of pressure on the employees in the last administration to meet these CFSR benchmarks and goals,” said Ellett, who taught agency employees during that period.
Georgia enforcement officials in September arrested two child protection workers in the agency’s Columbus office, Phyllis Mitchell and Deborah Cobb, on charges of making false statements and encouraging others to lie. Mitchell worked as the intake supervisor at the county office, while Cobb had served as its acting supervisor. Police say the probe centers on allegations that agency workers tampered with or destroyed child abuse reports to meet internal guidelines related to the federal reviews.
State officials say no individual worker had an incentive to manipulate or hide data because the agency absorbed the financial penalties on a statewide basis and did not tie the cuts to the performance of individual workers or offices.
Outsiders are also skeptical the reviews would encourage widespread cheating. Other requirements put more pressure on social workers than federal reviews or improvement plans, said Bill Grimm, an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif. He said improvement plans typically focus too much on bureaucratic process.
“It’s we’re going to do some training here, do some policy there and very little of it focuses on things that will have a significant impact on the health and permanency of kids in foster care,” he said.
Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, credited the federal reviews for doing an “extraordinary amount of good” by measuring indicators of child well-being and holding child welfare agencies accountable for the results. He said federal officials have addressed some early complaints by changing the way they evaluate potentially conflicting goals, for example, reuniting a family and preventing recurrences of abuse.
Critics have argued that review teams examine too few cases to draw reliable statistical conclusions. But Barth said the information they get does allow examiners to see how the child welfare system deals with children and interacts with other agencies.
He said carefully calibrated financial penalties may do good if they pressure agencies to improve.
“Hopefully not to the point of malfeasance, but hopefully trying to figure out how we get another 20 kids home every month,” he said.