State Approaches to Screening for Domestic Violence Could Benefit from HHS Guidance

GAO-05-701: Published: Aug 16, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 15, 2005.

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The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program introduced specific work requirements and benefit time limits. However, the Family Violence Option (FVO) requires states that adopt the FVO to screen TANF clients for domestic violence and grant waivers from program requirements for clients in domestic violence situations. TANF also allows the use of TANF funds for marriage and responsible fatherhood programs. Given states' broad discretion in implementing the TANF program, including most aspects of the FVO and marriage and responsible fatherhood programs, this report examines (1) how states identify victims of domestic violence among TANF recipients, (2) how states address domestic violence among TANF recipients once they are identified, and (3) the extent to which states spend TANF funds on marriage and responsible fatherhood programs, and how, if at all, these programs are addressing domestic violence.

Forty-eight states have adopted the FVO or a comparable state policy. Most of these states actively screened clients by directly questioning them about domestic violence, whereas five states simply notified clients of domestic violence waivers without making a direct inquiry. Most states provide staff with a screening tool, but the detail and depth of these tools vary. State officials said that staff in local TANF offices often have limited skills in dealing with domestic violence issues, and policies regarding staff training vary. To address this issue, some state TANF offices employ domestic violence specialists. Although HHS has compiled and disseminated information about domestic violence screening, HHS has not issued guidance regarding best practices in domestic violence screening. State TANF programs help clients address domestic violence issues by granting waivers that exempt victims from TANF requirements, and by referring clients for domestic violence services. Most states will waive the TANF program's federal requirements pertaining to work, the 5-year lifetime limit on cash assistance, and the child support requirements. However, the conditions of these waivers vary from state to state. For example, 27 states required that clients participate in domestic violence services. Limited data on the number of domestic violence waivers indicates that a comparatively small portion of TANF recipients obtain such waivers. Most states have used TANF funds for marriage or responsible fatherhood programs or both. Specifically, 15 states reported funding marriage programs and 28 reported funding responsible fatherhood programs. States that provided usable data reported spending about 5 percent or less of their federal TANF budget on these programs. In addition, some states funded these programs through other funding sources or had programs in development. According to research and practitioners in the field, these programs generally do not explicitly address domestic violence, and HHS has stated that all future Healthy Marriage projects should include domestic violence protections.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: HHS reported that an array of best practices would be desirable. It has not examined or determined which practices would be most promising, so it cannot advocate specific screening methods over others. Instead, the agency provides information on a variety of screening practices. For example, the Welfare Peer Technical Assistance Network, an HHS web site, includes information on screening practices from different agencies around the country. The "Promising Practices Guide," funded by HHS and issued in January 2009, includes information on screening practices from several state and local programs. It also includes a chapter on screening and enrollment that describes promising screening practices and identifies assessment tool resources.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should examine current domestic violence screening practices of states, and determine whether certain practices--such as employing and training, where possible, domestic violence specialists--are particularly promising approaches to screening for domestic violence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS provides information to states on screening practices in various ways. The agency funded the "Promising Practices Guide," (January 2009), which is intended to be helpful to various audiences, including state agencies. The Guide includes information on screening practices from programs in several states, such as Minnesota, Texas and Maryland. The Guide includes a chapter on screening and enrollment that describes promising screening practices and identifies assessment tool resources. HHS also operates the "Welfare Peer Technical Assistance Network," a web site that provides technical assistance on domestic violence topics. The site includes information on various state agency screening procedures and techniques, including the Denver Department of Human Services' "Domestic Violence Screening Document" form and Nebraska's new Employment First Screening and Assessment Form and Guide. Finally, the agency funds the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, which provides technical assistance and training nationwide, including to states.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should provide states with information on these practices, and, through agency guidance or memoranda, encourage their adoption.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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