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Child-Protection Block Grant Imperils Troubled Families, Critics Say

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Abused and neglected children would no longer have a federal entitlement to foster care, adoption services, and other forms of aid under the welfare-reform bill that is wending its way through the House.

The bill, which would replace more than 20 child-welfare programs with a block grant, is part of the proposed "personal responsibility act." (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1995.)

A House subcommittee approved the bill last month. The full Ways and Means Committee completed work on the child-protection provisions last week, and was expected to pass the entire welfare-reform bill late last week. Action by the full House is expected later this month.

The House Republicans' "Contract With America" has drawn fire from Congressional Democrats and child advocates for its plans to replace such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the school-meals programs with block grants. But the provisions on foster care and child protection, which were not spelled out until the welfare bill reached the subcommittee, have received less publicity.

Backers of the child-protection block grant argue that states are in the best position to decide how to spend their foster-care money and that the bill would help states reduce paperwork and funnel more aid into prevention.

But child-welfare groups say the plan would exacerbate problems states are already having in serving abused and neglected children at a time when many more are likely to need help.

"Proposed deep cuts in aid to state child-welfare programs that are already underfunded will result in more children killed, injured, sexually abused, abandoned, and severely neglected, more children placed in foster care, and more families headed for trouble," David Liederman, the executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, said last week at a news briefing here.

Congressional aides estimate that the version of the bill cleared by the full committee would reduce overall funding by $2.9 billion over five years, but opponents fear that estimate may be low.

No Safety Valve

Child-welfare advocates say proposed G.O.P. cuts in other social programs will strain families and create an even greater need for foster care. They also argue that lump-sum payments to states would not allow for increases during recessions or unexpected situations like the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980's, which have effects that can overwhelm the foster-care system.

Educators should be concerned, these groups say, because children in crisis who get no help have little chance of succeeding in school.

The proposed block grant would replace programs now funded by the Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program, which guarantees help for abused and neglected children whose parents cannot care for them and also funds outreach, recruitment, monitoring of foster-care placements, case planning, and staff training.

It would also replace formula-grant programs that provide aid to states for intensive services to help keep families together, return children to their families safely, and prepare teenagers to live independently.

An array of other programs focused on child-abuse prevention and treatment, missing and exploited children, adoption of special-needs children, family-violence prevention, family-support centers, and child-abuse prosecution would also be repealed.

States would have wide latitude to divvy up their block-grant money. They would be allowed to transfer up to 30 percent of their grants to other social programs, although an amendment adopted last week forbids that if certain conditions exist, such as lengthy stays in foster care.

The measure would eliminate much of the federal government's oversight role, but it calls for at least three citizen-review panels in each state to investigate and report publicly on whether state and local agencies are carrying out child-welfare functions and meeting standards set by states.

"We have faith in the states that they will step up to their responsibilities and do it right," said Ari Fleischer, the communications director for the Ways and Means Committee.

But critics say the state and county agencies that now operate foster-care and related services are already stretched thin, and if anything need more federal aid and stronger standards to insure high-quality services.

Federal foster-care laws passed since 1961 have gone a long way toward establishing a safety net and legal protections, child-welfare officials say, but there are still wide disparities in states' responsiveness to child-abuse complaints and in the level of services states provide.

A number of states have been sued for failing to protect children and ordered by courts to remedy their child-welfare systems.

"It's the federal standards that have helped states invent their way toward solutions," said Katharine Briar, the chairwoman of the department of family studies and social work at Miami University in Ohio.

'Hitting the Mule'

A House Republican aide argued that the bill would still allow such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union to take poorly performing child-welfare agencies to court.

However, while the bill's backers argue that existing laws have bogged states down with regulations, they concede that the proposed approach has not been tested, and agree that modifications may be made as the bill makes its way through Congress.

"This is hitting the mule with a board to get attention," said one Republican aide.

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