The Trump administration wanted public feedback on Obama-laid plans to collect more information about youth and adults involved in the foster care system. It heard from more than 200 parties, almost all of them weighing in with comments in the final week of the public period.
On its way out the door in 2016, the Obama administration finalized instructions to states on several hundred new data points to collect through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which is the nation’s central depository of state child welfare data.
It is the first time since 1993 that AFCARS collection has been updated, and many of the new data elements required under the new rule were specified in legislation passed since that time.
The Trump administration put the brakes on the new rules, delaying their effective date until 2022 while also opening up the process for another round of public comments. This angered one powerful Senate Democrat, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who said he will not support Trump’s pick to lead federal child welfare policy until a timeline is set for the new data collection.
Youth Services Insider would not pretend to have read every one of the 220 comments lodged, which you can find by searching at Regulations.gov and carving out two days of reading. But we scanned enough to get a sense of the overarching themes in the public feedback to the rules.
High Costs, No Help
Several state agencies took the public comment opportunity to lay out what the annual cost would be to gather hundreds of new data points. It tended to be in the hundred-thousands for small states, and millions for the larger states. Florida ballparked its added costs at $18.5 million in the first four years of implementation.
The states that have not moved toward migrating away from their old collection information systems – the feds are offering matched money to help states update and upgrade – seem to be facing the steepest costs.
The cost concerns were expressed by a variance of states, including those with Democrat governors. And most used the same pitch: with no additional federal funding for this effort, states would be choosing between cutting back on funds for caseworkers while also requiring more paperwork from them.
Most Commented On: Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)
About half of the new data pertains to collecting more information on children who are covered by ICWA, which was passed in 1978 to control the removal of Native American children from their families. At the time, more than a quarter of Native American kids were removed from their parents, and the vast majority ended up in foster care placements outside of their tribes or communities.
The new rules represent the first instruction on collecting ICWA-related data. The gist from most state comments is that they support some collection on ICWA, but not to the extent that the rules require. A few states with very low Native American populations object to the nationwide requirement for this new process.
The administration also heard from many tribal governments and advocates in favor of the full ICWA set. Many of those comments included some variation of this sentiment, shared by child welfare consultant Elizabeth Twining Blue: “We know of no other federal child welfare law that does not have some form of basic data collection and certainly not one that is 40 years old as ICWA is.”
Hottest Potato: Sexual Orientation Questions
Several states and scores of advocacy groups commented in favor of maintaining the new requirements that states ask foster youths and foster or adoptive parents about their sexual orientation. From the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative group:
Studies show that approximately 19% of foster youth identify as LGBT, and they experience worse safety, well-being and permanency outcomes than non-LGBT youth. For states to improve these outcomes and identify best practices for doing so, data collection on the state and national level is needed. Same-sex couples foster at six times the rate of their opposite-sex counterparts, and can provide loving, supportive homes for America’s 400,000+ foster youth.
But many other states voiced concern both about the collection process for this information, and the impact of collecting it. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services commented that it “was unclear on what this data will be useful for and fears being the catalyst for family conflict.”
The Texas Department of Family Services argued that eliciting the information “may require additional time spent building rapport, and would likely result in further dialogue, including an explanation of why that question must be asked and why it must be collected.”
Tracking Broken Adoptions and Guardianships
One of the biggest blind spots in data about youth services is the extent to which adoptions or guardianships from foster care disrupt. A 2014 law mandated that states start reporting on this issue through AFCARS, and the final rules in 2016 included instructions on collection.
This section of the new AFCARS rules did not appear to be a point of major objection for states. Some did note this as a major new element from a cost perspective because of the specificity involved. States must report how many youth in care were the subject of a prior adoption, and must also note the date of that adoption.
“Currently our data is not structured in a way that would allow us to easily obtain this information for reporting on prior adoption or prior guardianship,” said a letter from the Utah Department of Human Services. It’s worth noting that Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), was the one who introduced legislation to include this element in AFCARS.