Utah Auditor General Releases Foster Care, Child Welfare Audit

An audit of the Utah child welfare and foster care systems was released on January 18, 2011, by the Utah Auditor General. While it is hardly what I might consider as a “scathing” audit, it is refreshing in its candor.

The report explains that: “Over the past decade, the number of children DCFS serves in foster care has increased by 38 percent, while the number of families receiving in-home services that allow children to remain home has decreased by 40 percent.” The auditors continue on to note:

    DCFS’ focus on providing foster care services rather than in-home services is problematic for the following reasons:

  • Research shows that children are best served and permanency outcomes are enhanced when children can safely remain at home with their families.
  • Foster care is much more expensive than in-home services and the average duration of foster care cases is nearly four times longer than in-home cases.

The Department’s priorities are clearly reflected in its expenditures. Of the $157,235,087 expended in 2010, $94,482,806 was spent on out-of-home foster care, providing for 60% of the total. In constrast, only $3,442,862 went to child abuse prevention – representing only 2% of the total expenditures.

By way of providing some definitions, out-of-home foster care includes “housing, maintenance, and health care services for children who are removed from their homes and in DCFS custody. Includes payments for all levels of care from basic foster homes to residential facilities and institutions.”

Child Abuse Prevention is defined as including “preventative services through contracted providers and community-based organizations that help families resolve conflicts and behavioral or emotional concerns.”

Enter stage right, the perverse federal incentives favoring placement over prevention. As the Audit explains: “More than half of DCFS’ budget comes from state General Funds. DCFS also receives federal funds. However, the majority of federal funding is currently reserved for out-of-home services (foster care) and cannot be used for prevention or reunification services or supports. States can access dollars under Federal Title IV-E, the principal source of federal child welfare funding, only after children have been removed from their home and enter foster care.”

True to the bureaucratic imperative for expansion and survival, “most of the division’s funding pays for service provider contracts, staff compensation, and other division current expenses.”

The Audit’s findings are worth citing at some length:

    The number of children in foster care and the amount of time they remain in foster care have both increased, and the cost of the foster care program continues to increase. However, less expensive in-home services to prevent at-risk children from being removed from home are decreasing. This trend is concerning because research indicates better outcomes result for children served in their own home. Providing inhome services to minimize future foster care placements will result in immediate savings that should more than pay for additional in-home services.

    In-home services are required by statute to prevent or reduce the removal of children from their homes. Other states have effectively implemented in-home models and, as a result, children were removed from their homes less often. We recommend the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) choose evidence-based service options that will prevent additional children from being removed from home and bring removed children back home as quickly as possible.

The Audit notes that the number of children in foster care has increased from 2020 to 2790 in the past decade, while the number of families provided services to prevent at-risk children from being removed from home has decreased from 2707 to 1640. The Audit alsso noted wide regional disparities, in this regard.

The report explains that Utah state code requires the division to “make reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of a child from the child’s home prior to placement in substitute care.” The State Code also says that:

    It is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents. A child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships will usually best be met by the child’s natural parents.

The Audit revealed ome other troubling trends, not the least of which is that in Utah, the number of children and youth in residential care had increased 50 percent over the last decade. And, citing the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Audit explains that “of all 50 states, Utah had the 12th highest percentage of youth aging out of foster care without a family in 2006.”

Vague definitions of “abuse” and “neglect” are at least in part to blame. The auditor note that: “we think DCFS should review their child protective services (CPS) procedures and definitions of abuse and neglect. Some DCFS staff told us that the division has a broader definition of what constitutes abuse and neglect than other states. As a result, DCFS may investigate more cases and have more supported findings of abuse and neglect because it applies a different policy than intended by the Legislature. Since these lower risk cases do not receive services anyway, the concern is that families and children are unnecessarily stigmatized and division resources are diverted from more serious cases.”

The auditors expresed that DCFS should review administrative rule definitions to ensure consistency with state statutes, explaining that: “DCFS appears to apply a broader definition of what constitutes abuse and neglect than other states. As a result, Utah may investigate more cases and have a higher number of supported findings than the national average. Some DCFS staff told us they believe too much emphasis is placed on low risk cases at the expense of more serious cases of maltreatment.”

The Audit also noted that DCFS’ average caseload calculation is based on questionable assumptions. By excluding workers with low caseloads, DCFS can submit claims for additional funding to the State Legislature based on artificially inflated caseloads.

When it comes to foster care, the more things seem to change – the more they stay the same.

Related reading:

A Performance Audit of the Division of Child and Family Services, Report #2011-02, Utah Auditor General, January 18, 2011.

Marjorie Cortez, “Increased number of foster care placements ‘troubling,’ child welfare expert says, Deseret News, (January 28, 2011).