Children's Rights Calls on Senators to Grill Tommy Thompson on Child Welfare; Cite...

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PRESS RELEASE

Children's Rights, a national advocacy organization working to protect the rights of abused and neglected children in government custody, called upon members of the U.S. Senate to ask Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Tommy Thompson questions about his ability to enforce federal oversight of foster care and adoption. Children's Rights provided background and questions to members of the Committee on Finance for its hearing with Mr. Thompson on January 18 and to members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for its hearing on January 19.

"Mr. Thompson's record on foster care in his home state of Wisconsin is so appalling that we have serious doubts about his ability to effectively enforce existing federal laws and policies designed to protect our most vulnerable citizens - abused and neglected children," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, Children's Rights Executive Director. "We need senators to question him on these issues and if they are not satisfied with his response to vote against his confirmation."

In a January 16 letter, Children's Rights called on members of the Senate to insist that Thompson answer questions in five areas. The letter notes, for example, that while he was Governor of Wisconsin, Thompson oversaw a state takeover of the child welfare system in Milwaukee County that has resulted in the worsening of an already deplorable situation. That takeover was the state's response to a federal class action lawsuit by Children's Rights.

"The state is failing to keep its promise of reform. Children who are abused and neglected today in Wisconsin receive even poorer care and protection than before," Lowry said.

Children's Rights also raises questions about Thompson's stand on privatization, block granting and waivers that could undermine child welfare administrators' ability to provide desperately needed services for children in foster care across the country.

"Mr. Thompson's privatization of Milwaukee's child welfare services without meaningful state monitoring and accountability raises real concerns about his commitment to federal oversight," stated Madelyn Freundlich, Director of Policy for Children's Rights. "The federal government has pledged to conduct much needed reviews of child and family services beginning in 2001. We need to know how committed Mr. Thompson will actually be to insuring that HHS not only maintains but improves its obligation to monitor and hold states accountable for the protection and care of children in state custody."

"If Mr. Thompson cannot give satisfactory responses to these questions, then he does not merit confirmation as Secretary of Health and Human Services," Lowry said.

Children's Rights works throughout the United States in partnership with national and local experts, advocates and government officials to document the needs of children in the care of child welfare systems. Children's Rights helps develop realistic solutions and, where necessary, uses the power of litigation to ensure that reform takes place.

# # #

QUESTIONS FOR TOMMY THOMPSON REGARDING CHILD WELFARE AND ROLE OF THE HHS/CHILDREN'S BUREAU

BACKGROUND

In 1998, in response to a federal lawsuit on behalf of children in Milwaukee, Gov. Thompson oversaw a State takeover of the largest county-run child welfare system in Wisconsin, privatizing most social work functions in the process. Mismanagement and the lack of sufficient State oversight, however, have led to a further decline in services to abused and neglected children who go for months and sometimes years without any services or even contact from a caseworker. As a result, children continue to languish in temporary placements for years, and several foster parents licensed by the State and its contractors are facing criminal charges for the repeated beatings of foster children in their care. One four year old foster child was recently severely beaten after being returned to a foster home even though the home had had its foster care license revoked for physical abuse. Also, the lead for-profit agency contracted by the State went out of business last year, after having spent $90,000 earmarked for services to abused and neglected children on corporate perks.

FEDERAL ROLE VERSUS STATE'S ROLE

The Children's Bureau is the division within HHS with specific responsibility for administering federal foster care and adoption assistance programs. Historically, the Children's Bureau set the standards for child welfare practice and policy and played a key leadership role in ensuring that state practice was at a high level -- through training, technical assistance, and publications.

Given Mr. Thompson's well-known preference for the devolution of social programs from the federal government to state and local governments, how would he define the role of HHS in relation to the provision of foster care and adoption assistance? Will Mr. Thompson encourage the recent resurgence of federal leadership in this area at HHS, or allow it to disappear again as it did under previous Republican administrations?

Monitoring

Specifically, to what extent should HHS play a monitoring role in assuring compliance with federal mandates as provided in the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (PL 96-272), the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA)?

For example, the federal government has committed to conducting much needed reviews of child and family services beginning in 2001. How will Mr. Thompson ensure that those HHS audits are thorough and adequately staffed?

Accountability

To what extent should HHS hold states accountable in relation to the mandates of PL 96-272, CAPTA and ASFA? How will he enforce compliance when states do not measure up in doing what they are required to do for children in foster care? To what extent should fiscal penalties under this federal legislation be enforced?

For example, given that the State of Wisconsin has been unable to even identify the thousands of children in Milwaukee who have been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, much less file petitions for termination of parental rights on their behalf as required by ASFA (unless an exception applies), what would HHS expect of the states with regard to the need to initiate action towards finding these children permanent homes? Would HHS require specific state documentation that applicable exceptions apply? Or would HHS simply defer to the state's judgment in this regard?

PRIVATIZATION

Mr. Thompson is best known for "welfare reform" and his efforts in Wisconsin that used private contractors to do much of the workforce development aspects of "welfare reform." Given Mr. Thompson's hasty privatization of Milwaukee child welfare services, how does he view the privatization of formerly public functions - particularly with regard to monitoring and accountability in terms of both outcomes for the clients served and the fiscal outlays of public dollars? What is HHS's role in ensuring such monitoring and accountability?

BLOCK GRANTING

What position would Mr. Thompson take with regard to efforts to revise the current funding structure under Title IV-E? What fiscal methodology would he support for the federal funding of foster care and adoption assistance?

Title IV-E has always been an open-ended entitlement that ensures that no matter how many children enter foster care, the federal government will pay its share of the cost of the children's care. Recently, there have been legislative suggestions that Title IV-E be "block granted."

Given that if Title IV-E were block granted and a lump sum sent to the states, an unanticipated increase in the number of children in foster care would not be provided for, and might force states to limit further entries into foster care for all but the most egregious cases of abuse (in violation of CAPTA and ASFA's goals of child protection and safety), what is Mr. Thompson's position regarding the viability of block granting child welfare service funding? If Mr. Thompson views Title VI-E block granting as viable, what role should HHS play in monitoring and holding states accountable under such a regime.

WAIVERS

Given Mr. Thompson's aggressive pursuit of waivers from HHS on behalf of Wisconsin, how does he view the role of waivers and their availability?

What evaluative standards should be attached to waivers? To what extent are cost savings an evaluative measure? What substantive outcomes (related to child safety, well-being, and permanence) should be used to evaluate approaches authorized under child welfare waivers?

If the federal government is going to allow states to try "new" and "innovative" approaches to services and funding, how is the outcome going to be assessed? As we have seen with welfare reform, saving money seems to be the overarching indication of success. Would Mr. Thompson try to make more waivers available to more states and without a real evaluative component to these experiments? Would he advocate for more waivers for more states and effectively skirt the federal requirements by giving virtually everyone the opportunity to be an exception to the rule?

PUNITIVE APPROACH TO FAMILIES

What is Mr. Thompson's philosophical approach to the provision of foster care and adoption services, particularly in relation to services to children's biological families?

Given that Mr. Thompson pushed "Learnfare" through in Wisconsin, which authorized the withholding of parents' cash benefits if they had another child while on welfare, does Mr. Thompson believe in a similar punitive approach to parental behavior in the allocation of services to preserve and reunify families with a history of abuse or neglect?

Children's Rights works throughout the United States in partnership with national and local experts, advocates and government officials to document the needs of children in the care of child welfare systems. Children's Rights helps develop realistic solutions and, where necessary, uses the power of litigation to ensure that reform takes place.
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