Foster Care:

Implementation of the Multiethnic Placement Act Poses Difficult Challenges

HEHS-98-204: Published: Sep 14, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 15, 1998.

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Cynthia Maher Fagnoni
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the implementation of the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, as amended, at the federal level and in states with large and ethnically diverse foster care caseloads, focusing on: (1) efforts by federal, state, and local agencies to implement the 1994 act in the areas of assistance; (2) efforts by federal, state, and local agencies in these same areas to implement the 1996 amendment to the act; and (3) the challenges all levels of government face to change placement practices.

GAO noted that: (1) the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and California initiated collaborative, multipronged efforts to inform agencies and caseworkers about the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994; (2) HHS program officials recognized that the act requires child welfare agencies to undergo a historic change in how foster care and adoption placement decisions are made by limiting the use of race as a factor; (3) within 6 weeks of the act's passage, HHS took the first step in a comprehensive approach to implementation that involved issuing policy guidance and providing technical assistance; (4) some states believed that HHS' policy was more restrictive regarding the use of race in placement decisions than provided for in the act; (5) after enactment of the 1996 amendment, HHS did not update its policy guidance for 9 months, and it has done little to address casework practice issues; (6) California has yet to conform its state laws and regulations to the amended act; (7) the state provided training to some county staff, but the training was not targeted toward staff who have primary responsibility for placing children in foster or adoptive homes; (8) both counties have provided some training to caseworkers on the 1996 amendment, either through formal training sessions or one-on-one training by supervisors, however, only one county has begun to revise its policies; (9) changing long-standing social work practices, translating legal principles into practical advice for caseworkers, and developing compliance monitoring systems are among the challenges remaining for officials at all levels of government in changing placement decisionmaking; (10) the implementation of this amended act predominantly relies on the understanding and willingness of caseworkers to eliminate race from the placement decisions they make; (11) while agency officials and caseworkers understand that this legislation prohibits them from delaying or denying placements on the basis of race, not all believe that eliminating race will result in placements that are in the best interests of children; (12) state and local officials and caseworkers demonstrated lingering confusion about allowable actions under the law; (13) the state training session GAO attended on the amended act showed that neither the state nor HHS has provided clear guidance to caseworkers to apply the law to casework practice; and (14) federal efforts to determine whether placement decisions are consistent with the amended act's restrictions on the use of race-based factors will be hampered by difficulties in identifying data that are complete and sufficient.

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