August 12,2003

Grassley, Delay Seek More Reliable Child Welfare Data System

WASHINGTON – A new report has identified deficiencies in the child welfare data systems developed by the states and overseen by the federal government, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance.

In a letter sent this week to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson,Grassley and House Majority Leader Tom Delay urged the government to implement recommendations made in the report by the General Accounting Office to improve the reliability ofthe child welfare data and, in turn, the circumstances facing the 500,000 children in the welfaresystem. Grassley and Delay requested this GAO report, GAO-03-809. It can be found

"Congress, the administration and the states need to make sure every step necessary is taken on behalf of those who are forced to rely on the child welfare system," Grassley said. "An improved tracking system can be part of helping to prevent child abuse and maltreatment. It can potentially shorten the length of time needed for either adoption or family reunification."

Since 1994, federal matching funds have been available to states to develop and implement comprehensive case management systems to manage their child welfare cases as well as to report child abuse and neglect, foster care and adoption information to the federal government.

The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress. A copy of the Grassley/Delay letter follows here.

August 11, 2003

The Honorable Tommy G. Thompson
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, DC 20201

Dear Secretary Thompson:

The purpose of this letter is to request that the Department of Health and Human Services(HHS) take immediate action to address, among other things, the reliability of the systems used to track more than 500,000 vulnerable children in our country.The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently released a report entitled “Most States areDeveloping Statewide Information Systems, but the Reliability of Child Welfare Data Could beImproved (report).” This report focuses on the statewide automated child welfare informationsystems (SACWIS).

Specifically in 1993, Congress authorized enhanced federal funding to assist states indeveloping SACWIS; a uniform information system. SACWIS is used by state caseworkers toestablish electronic case files for children and families served by the state child welfare agencies. Ittracks, for both the state and federal government, the often winding and perilous paths that, for example, foster children too often take through the child welfare system. In sum, this system is intended to monitor, the most vulnerable among us – children who are the victims of abuse and neglect.

Unfortunately, the report notes a number of deficiencies and failures with regard to theSACWIS system throughout too many states. Accordingly, the report recommends that HHS enhancethe guidance and assistance to states to overcome the challenges of collecting data on the childrenwithin child welfare programs.

To date, HHS reports that 47 states are developing or operating a fully functioning SACWIS system to meet their own needs and certain federal requirements. Since 1994, states reported that $2.4 billion in federal, state and local funds have been spent developing SACWIS, $1.3 billion of this sum represents federal dollars.

We believe it is critical that states develop and maintain a SACWIS. Almost a decade has passed and yet 31 state agencies lag behind the time frames they set for completion, with 26 states reporting delays ranging from 2 months to 8 years. Surely, we can do better.

These delays are alarming, since an operational SACWIS system can be an integral tool inhelping to:

prevent child abuse;
shorten the time to adoption;
decrease recurrences of child maltreatment; and
shorten the length of time to achieve reunification among family members.

Coupled with delays in achieving an operational SACWIS, there are concerns with the states’ ability to collect and report reliable data on children served by state child welfare agencies. The report also speaks to why states are experiencing such problems. The excuses articulated by statesrun the gamut and include a lack of clear and documented guidance from HHS, to inaccurate andincomplete data entry into their respective information systems, to insufficient state funding, toinsufficient caseworker training.

At the same time, states report that an operational and reliable child welfare data system can assist in improving the timeliness of child abuse and neglect investigations. Are there many things more important than coming to the rescue of a vulnerable child before another tragedy occurs?

We recognize that SACWIS has not reached its full potential. We also recognize that withoutfederal oversight and enforcement, SACWIS will never reach its full potential. Indeed, in the past, administrative penalties were levied for states that submitted low quality, unreliable data on children in foster care. Despite a belief stated by HHS officials on page 31 of the GAO report that “penalties served as an effective motivation to states to correct their data,” the penalties were rescinded inJanuary 2002.

It is our belief that you may wish to give consideration to, among other things, reviewingthe HHS decision with regard to penalties. Although penalties are but one of the many ways that the federal government can motivate states; it is imperative that HHS initiate ways to insure that the states fulfill their responsibilities, insure that they are reporting reliable data, and that taxpayers seethe results of their $1.3 billion dollar investment.

States will continue to face challenges in the years to come; but, permitting these challengesto fall upon the shoulders of maltreated children is unacceptable. Moreover the information contained and maintained in the SACWIS must be complete, accurate, consistent and reliable. After all, reliable data is essential to the health and well-being of children in foster care and the federal government’s role in the oversight of the child welfare system.

In closing, we are requesting that you provide us with a detailed plan by September 30, 2003.

In that plan, please address specifically the recommendations contained in the GAO report, as well as, the issues set forth in this letter. We believe it is critical that the SACWIS system, envisioned almost a decade ago is up and running in every state and that it contains reliable data. Only in this way can we better the path on which so many children travel through no fault of their own.

In closing, thank your attention to this important matter. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Leah Kegler of Senator Grassley’s Committee on Finance staff at (202-224-4515) or Cassie Statuto Bevan with Majority Leader DeLay at (202)-225-4000.


Charles E. Grassley 
U.S. Senate

Tom Delay
Majority Leader
U.S. House of Representatives