An HHS Crackdown on States? Or Kids?


The NY Times reports today that Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has initiated–or appears to have initiated; when dealing with “good news” coming out of the Bush Admin, I’ve learned to be very cautious–a crackdown, finally, on the scandalous treatment of child welfare programs in a number of states, including Florida, which gained national attention several times last year when children who were supposed to be in the care of the state due to abusive parents either died unaccountably or simply disappeared from the system altogether. Similar, if less drastic, faults exist in a number of states.

The federal report was based on a review of state data and case files, as well as interviews with children, their biological parents, foster and adoptive parents, social workers and juvenile and family court judges.Federal officials repeatedly cited states for certain deficiencies: significant numbers of children suffering abuse or neglect more than once in a six-month period; caseworkers not visiting children often enough to assess their needs; and not providing promised medical and mental health services.

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Federal officials said 16 states did not meet any of the seven standards. These states were Alaska, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The sad truth is that child welfare funds have been cut by a LOT of states in an effort to reduce debt. Federal money to support such programs was one of the first items to be cut in the new Republican govt’s budget, cuts which, along with cuts in state budgets, helped pauperize child welfare programs all over the country. Bob Herbert pointed out in one of his columns a while back attacking the tragedies in Florida (no longer available online) that child welfare workers there were responsible for as many as 400 cases apiece because of cuts in personnel–ten times as many as the maximum suggested by Federal guidelines.

Every one of the flaws mentioned in the HHS report is directly traceable to Federal or state funding cuts, yet the HHS-Sec isn’t proposing new money to cover the shortfalls–not in Junior’s corporate-owned Admin, he’s not–but penalties that will make the money crunch even worse.

The federal government provides $7 billion a year to states for foster care, adoption assistance and other child welfare programs. If states do not correct the deficiencies, they stand to lose some of the money.Penalties are estimated at $18.2 million for California, $3.6 million for Florida, $3.5 million for Texas, $3 million for Pennsylvania, $2.5 million each for Ohio and Michigan, and $2.3 million for New York.

The penalties, if enacted, will require yet more program and personnel cuts and weaken already tenuous state systems possibly to the breaking point. On the other hand, who wants to see the dangerously sloppy and inattentive way states have shoveled the problems of at-risk children onto the back burner continue?

I suspect that Tommy, who had, shall we say, a “mixed” record while Gov of Wisconsin, is going for an easy political kill here, like his so-called “Children First” program in Wisconsin which used the hot “deadbeat Dads” controversy to shift some of the state’s responsibilities for the care and protection of children from indigent families onto the backs of fathers who couldn’t pay their child support.

On the other hand, there was Tommy’s showpiece, “Wisconsin Works”, his version of the 1996 Congressional mandate to reform Welfare. Unlike the lazy, not to say mean, “make-’em-go-to-work-and-damn-everything-else” approach taken by many states’ govs, Tommy actually crafted an intelligent program that provided job training and financial and educational support to families on welfare (a model, incidentally, that was developed and tested in a small way in pilot programs in the early and mid-80’s right here in MA and then promptly defunded and totally ignored when it worked; I know–I was there). W2, as it was called, successfully put some 90% of welfare families into real jobs and off the state welfare rolls, many of them for good.

So that’s my problem: Is this a shot-across-the-bow in a war against the budget-cutters who are doing all the damage? Tommy’s way of announcing that he wants HHS’ funds restored? Or is it an s-across-the-b in a new war on children by the BA, infamous for its bait-and-switch tactics?

I know which way I’m leaning, but then I’m a cynic.

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