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Child Welfare: More Information and Collaboration Could Promote Ties Between Foster Care Children and Their Incarcerated Parents

GAO-11-863 Published: Sep 26, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2011.
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Federal law sets timelines for states' decisions about placing foster care children in permanent homes, and, in some cases, for filing to terminate parental rights. Some policymakers have questioned the reasonableness of these timelines for children of incarcerated parents and expressed interest in how states work with these families. GAO was asked to examine: (1) the number of foster care children with incarcerated parents, (2) strategies used by child welfare and corrections agencies in selected states that may support contact or reunification, and (3) how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have helped these agencies support affected children and families. GAO analyzed national data, reviewed federal policies, interviewed state child welfare and corrections officials in 10 selected states that contain almost half of the nation's prison and foster care populations, and visited local child welfare agencies and prisons.

Foster care children with an incarcerated parent are not a well-identified population, although they are likely to number in the tens of thousands. HHS data collected from states show that, in 2009 alone, more than 14,000 children entered foster care due at least partly to the incarceration of a parent. This may be an undercount, however, due to some underreporting from states and other factors. For instance, the data do not identify when a parent is incarcerated after the child entered foster care--a more common occurrence, according to case workers GAO interviewed. HHS is currently developing a proposal for new state reporting requirements on all foster care children; however, officials had not determined whether these new requirements would include more information collected from states on children with incarcerated parents. In 10 selected states, GAO found a range of strategies that support family ties. Some state child welfare agencies have provided guidance and training to caseworkers for managing such cases; and local agencies have worked with dependency courts to help inmates participate in child welfare hearings by phone or other means. For their part, some corrections agencies ease children's visits to prisons with special visitation hours and programs. In several cases, corrections agencies and child welfare agencies have collaborated, which has resulted in some interagency training for personnel, the creation of liaison staff positions, and video visitation facilitated by non-profit providers. HHS and DOJ each provide information and assistance to child welfare and corrections agencies on behalf of these children and families. For example, both federal agencies post information on their websites for practitioners working with children or their incarcerated parents, with some specific to foster care. The HHS information, however, was not always up to date or centrally organized, and officials from most of the state child welfare and corrections agencies GAO interviewed said they would benefit from information on how to serve these children. Further, DOJ has not developed protocols for federal prisons under its own jurisdiction for working with child welfare agencies and their staff, although GAO heard from some state and local child welfare officials that collaboration between child welfare and corrections agencies would facilitate their work with foster care children and their parents. This would also be in keeping with a DOJ agency goal to build partnerships with other entities to improve services and promote reintegration of offenders into communities. GAO recommends that HHS improve its data on the foster care children of incarcerated parents and that it more systematically disseminate information to child welfare agencies. GAO also recommends that DOJ consider ways to promote collaboration between corrections and child welfare agencies, including establishing protocols for federal prisons to facilitate communication between these entities. HHS and DOJ agreed with GAO's recommendations.


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services To better understand the magnitude of the population and inform federal or state initiatives that affect children in foster care with incarcerated parents, the Secretary of HHS should identify ways to strengthen the completeness of state-reported data on those children. For example, in implementing new reporting requirements for the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) system, the agency could take into consideration its 2008 proposed changes in which states would be required to provide additional information on each foster care child and his or her family circumstances, including a caretaker's incarceration, at several times during the child's stay in foster care and not only when a child first enters care.
Closed – Implemented
The agency developed an AFCARS regulation to address this recommendation, which was published in 2015. HHS initially submitted the proposed regulation to OMB in FY14, which included collecting expanded information on when a caretaker's incarceration is the reason for a child's entry into foster care, as well as additional information on when a caretaker is unable to permanently care for a child, for reasons that include a caretaker's incarceration. The rule was published on February 9, 2015.
Department of Health and Human Services To improve outcomes for these children, the Secretary of HHS should take steps to more systematically increase awareness among state and local child welfare agencies about available resources for children in child welfare with incarcerated parents. For example, HHS could (1) take steps to update and more centrally organize relevant information posted on the Child Welfare Information Gateway, which is meant to serve as a comprehensive information resource for the child welfare field, such as by regularly updating the information listed under the Gateway's relevant topic areas (e.g., "Children in Out-of-Home-Care With Incarcerated Parents") with links to more recent material posted on other HHS-supported websites; (2) identify or provide additional information on promising approaches, such as those listed by the Office of Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation; (3) use relevant findings from the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR) process as an opportunity to remind states about available resources and post information on promising approaches identified in the reviews; or (4) facilitate awareness among all child welfare agencies about HHS's available resources through an e-mail or a teleconference/webinar that would allow state and local agencies to share information on practices or strategies.
Closed – Implemented
In FY11, HHS agreed to more systematically increase awareness of available resources to improve outcomes for these children. For example, the agency said it would take steps to update and more centrally organize relevant information posted on the Child Welfare Information Gateway, as well as facilitate awareness among child welfare agencies and states about available resources, such as through newsletters or links to new information. In FY12, the agency posted additional relevant resources on the Child Welfare Information Gateway and included articles on this topic in the January, March and July 2012 issues of the Children's Bureau Express.
Department of Justice To better address the needs of children with incarcerated parents, including those in foster care, the U.S. Attorney General should consider including--among DOJ's ongoing and future information collection and dissemination efforts--activities that would assist state and local corrections agencies share promising practices for these children, including those that involve communication and coordination with child welfare agencies. For example, using some of the informational resources it already makes available to state and local corrections agencies, DOJ could compile and publicize examples of successful collaboration between corrections and child welfare agencies.
Closed – Implemented
DOJ stated that a key priority for the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, chaired by the Attorney General, is addressing issues that affect children and families with an incarcerated parent. Toward this end, DOJ is now working with the DOJ-funded National Reentry Resource Center, whose targeted audience includes state and local corrections, to identify and disseminate materials and promising practices involving corrections and child welfare agencies. Such materials can be found on its website:
Department of Justice To improve collaboration between federal correctional facilities and state and local child welfare agencies and help federal inmates maintain important family relationships, the U.S. Attorney General should direct DOJ's Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to consider developing protocols for facilities regarding offenders who have children in the child welfare system. These protocols could include: (1) responses/actions when child welfare agency workers contact BOP facilities to confirm an inmate's location, request to communicate directly with inmates, or inquire about inmates' current or future participation in programs or services that may be part of a child welfare case plan; (2) processes for responding to requests for inmates' participation in child welfare hearings or ways to facilitate participation when desired by the inmate, such as setting up teleconferencing abilities; or (3) whether facilities could designate a specific staff position to address all such inquiries or questions, including those from child welfare agencies, dependency courts, or offenders. If developed, these protocols could be shared with states and local corrections agencies as examples.
Closed – Implemented
BOP stated that it has updated its policy manual to include additional direction to correctional facilities staff who would be responsible for handling requests from child welfare agencies, provided training to these staff emphasizing the need to respond to inquiries from child welfare agencies, and highlighted this issue on a BOP intranet resource page. The agency reported that these efforts are intended to improve collaboration between federal correctional facilities and state and local child welfare agencies in working with offenders who have children in the child welfare system.

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Child welfareCorrectional facilitiesData collectionFamiliesFederal courtsFoster childrenImprisonmentInteragency relationsParentsReporting requirementsFamily reunificationFederal and state relations