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What GAO Found

All states reported adopting, to varying degrees, policies and procedures regarding health care providers notifying child protective services (CPS) about infants affected by opioids or other substances. Under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), as amended, governors are required to provide assurances that the states have laws or programs that include policies and procedures to address the needs of infants affected by prenatal substance use. This is to include health care providers notifying CPS of substance-affected infants. In response to GAO's survey, 42 states reported having policies and procedures that require health care providers to notify CPS about substance-affected infants and 8 states reported having policies that encourage notification. The remaining 1 state has a policy requiring health care providers to assess the needs of mothers and infants and if they conclude that infants are at risk for abuse or neglect, CPS is notified.

In response to GAO's survey, 49 states reported that their CPS agency has policies to develop a plan of safe care; 2 reported not having such a requirement. Under CAPTA, states are required to develop a plan of safe care for substance-affected infants. Although not defined in law, a plan of safe care generally entails an assessment of the family's situation and a plan for connecting families to appropriate services to stabilize the family and ensure the child's safety and well-being. States reported that plans typically address the infant's safety needs, immediate medical needs, and the caregiver's substance use treatment needs. However, officials in the 3 states GAO visited noted challenges, including uncertainty about what to include in plans and the level of intervention needed for infants at low risk of abuse or neglect.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has provided technical assistance and guidance to states to implement these CAPTA requirements. Most states reported in GAO's survey that additional guidance and assistance would be very or extremely helpful for addressing their challenges. Nevertheless, HHS officials told GAO that the agency does not anticipate issuing additional written guidance, but that states can access technical assistance through their regional offices and the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare—a resource center funded by HHS. However, of the 37 states that reported on the helpfulness of the assistance they have received, 19 said it was only moderately helpful to not helpful. States offered suggestions for improving the assistance, such as developing substance abuse training materials for staff and holding video conferences with other states to share information. In October 2017, HHS officials explained that some states have submitted plans that include details on how they are addressing the CAPTA requirements. HHS officials reported that some of the plans submitted to date indicated that states are not meeting the requirements and those states have been asked to develop program improvement plans. Without more specific guidance and assistance to enhance states' understanding of CAPTA requirements and better address known challenges such as the ones described in this report, states may miss an opportunity to provide more effective protections and services for the children and families most in need.

Why GAO Did This Study

Under CAPTA, states perform a range of prevention activities, including addressing the needs of infants born with prenatal drug exposure. The number of children under the age of 1 entering foster care increased by about 15 percent from fiscal years 2012 through 2015. Child welfare professionals attribute the increase to the opioid epidemic. GAO was asked to examine the steps states are taking to implement CAPTA requirements on substance-affected infants and related amendments enacted in 2016.

This report examines (1) the extent to which states have adopted policies and procedures to notify CPS of substance-affected infants; (2) state efforts to develop plans of safe care, and associated challenges; and (3) steps HHS has taken to help states implement the provisions.

To obtain this information, GAO surveyed state CPS directors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and reached a 100 percent response rate. GAO also visited 3 states (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania); reviewed relevant documents such as federal laws and regulations, and HHS guidance; and interviewed HHS officials. GAO did not assess states' compliance with CAPTA requirements.

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GAO recommends that HHS provide additional guidance and technical assistance to states to address known challenges and enhance their understanding of requirements. HHS did not concur with the recommendation. As discussed in the report, GAO continues to believe that added guidance would benefit states.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services 1. The Secretary of HHS should direct ACF to provide additional guidance and technical assistance to states to address known challenges and enhance their understanding of CAPTA requirements, including the requirements for health care providers to notify CPS of substance-affected infants and the development of a plan of safe care for these infants.
HHS did not agree with this recommendation. The agency stated that it previously clarified its guidance. Also, HHS believes it is necessary for states to have flexibility, within the context of their state CPS programs, to meet Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requirements. HHS indicated that it will continue to provide technical assistance to states and fund demonstration sites to establish or enhance collaboration across community agencies and courts. Although continuing to provide technical assistance to states should be beneficial, our findings demonstrate that additional guidance is also needed in the areas that we noted. We continue to believe our recommendation is warranted. As of March 2021, the agency continues to disagree with our recommendation and believes its previous efforts were sufficient.

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