African American Children In Foster Care:

Additional HHS Assistance Needed to Help States Reduce the Proportion in Care

GAO-07-816: Published: Jul 11, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2007.

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A significantly greater proportion of African American children are in foster care than children of other races and ethnicities, according to HHS and other research. Given this situation, GAO was asked to analyze the (1) major factors influencing the proportion of African American children in foster care, (2) extent that states and localities have implemented promising strategies, and (3) ways in which federal policies may have influenced African American representation in foster care. GAO's methodologies included a nationwide survey; a review of research and federal policies; state site visits; analyses of child welfare data; and interviews with researchers, HHS officials, and other experts.

A higher rate of poverty is among several factors contributing to the higher proportion of African American children entering and remaining in foster care. Families living in poverty have greater difficulty accessing housing, mental health, and other services needed to keep families stable and children safely at home. Bias or cultural misunderstandings and distrust between child welfare decision makers and the families they serve are also viewed as contributing to children's removal from their homes into foster care. African American children also stay in foster care longer because of difficulties in recruiting adoptive parents and a greater reliance on relatives to provide foster care who may be unwilling to terminate the parental rights of the child's parent--as required in adoption--or who need the financial subsidy they receive while the child is in foster care. Most states we surveyed reported using strategies intended to address these issues, such as involving families in decisions, building community supports, and broadening the search for relatives to care for children. HHS provides information and technical assistance, but states reported that they had limited capacity to analyze data and formulate strategies, and states we visited told us they relied on assistance from universities or others. States reported that the ability to use federal funding for family support services was helpful in keeping African American children safely at home and that federal subsidies for adoptive parents helped move children out of foster care. However, they also expressed concerns about the inability to use federal child welfare funds to provide subsidies to legal guardians. As an alternative to adoption, subsidized guardianship is considered particularly promising for helping African American children exit from foster care. States were also concerned about the lack of flexibility to use federal foster care funds to provide services for families, although states can use other federal funds for this purpose if they consider it a priority.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To assist states in increasing the number of homes available for the permanent placement of African American and other children from foster care, Congress may wish to consider amending federal law to allow federal reimbursement for legal guardianship similar to that currently provided for adoption.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 was passed, then signed into law by the President on October 7, 2008 (P.L. 110-351). The Act permits states to claim federal reimbursement for guardianship assistance provided on behalf of eligible children who leave foster care for placement in a legal guardianship with a relative.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To enhance states' ability to reduce the proportion of African American children in foster care, the Secretary of HHS should further assist states in understanding the nature and extent of disproportionality in their child welfare systems and in taking steps to address the issue. These actions should include encouraging states to regularly track state and local data on the racial disproportionality of children in foster care and use these data to develop strategies that can better enable them to prevent children's entry into foster care and speed their exit into permanent homes. HHS should also encourage states to make increased use of HHS's National Resource Centers as a source of technical assistance on this issue.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administration for Children and Families within HHS released a funding opportunity announcement in FY 2010 to solicit demonstration project proposals for states that supported the implementation and tested the effectiveness of innovative intervention strategies to improve permanency outcomes for a subset of children that have the most serious barriers to permanency. Two of the states that were awarded grants, Arizona and California, chose to focus on developing innovative strategies for moving African American children, who were disproportionately represented in their systems, to permanency faster. Ultimately, the goal of the funding stream is to develop or test these interventions so they can be highlighted as promising practices for use in other states' child welfare systems as well. In addition, as of July 2011, HHS reported that it had completed its Culturally Competent Practice Knowledge Initiative and makes available to states culturally competent information and support through the National Resource Centers funded by the Children's Bureau. Through the NRCS, the Children's Bureau continues to stress the importance of understanding cultural competency through the lens of its workforces, its community and the services it provides.

    Recommendation: To enhance states' ability to reduce the proportion of African American children in foster care, the Secretary of HHS should further assist states in understanding the nature and extent of disproportionality in their child welfare systems and in taking steps to address the issue. These actions should include completing and making publicly available information on disproportionality that the agency is developing under its Culturally Competent Practice Knowledge Initiative so that states have easier access to tools and strategies useful for addressing the issue.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of July 2011, HHS reported that it had completed its Culturally Competent Practice Knowledge Initiative and continues to make available to states culturally competent information and support through the National Resource Centers funded by the Children's Bureau. Through these resource centers, which provide technical and other assistance to states, the Children's Bureau continues to stress the importance of understanding cultural competency through the lens of its workforces, its community, and the services it provides. In FY10, HHS reported that its training and technical assistance in this area are ongoing.

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