Child Welfare:

Federal Action Needed to Ensure States Have Plans to Safeguard Children in the Child Welfare System Displaced by Disasters

GAO-06-944: Published: Jul 28, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 2006.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Cornelia M. Ashby
(202) 512-8403
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there were 48 federally declared disasters in 2005. Two of these disasters--Hurricanes Katrina and Rita--resulted in a prolonged interruption of child welfare services and the dispersion of thousands of children in Louisiana's foster care system to 19 states. As a result, there has been growing interest in the extent to which states have developed strategies to cope with disasters that could result in the dispersion of children in the child welfare system. Congress asked us to conduct a study of the challenges facing state child welfare systems, including the development of plans for dealing with the dispersion of children in the child welfare system due to disasters. This report addresses state child welfare disaster planning. Specifically, we are providing information on (1) the number of states that have statewide child welfare disaster plans and the primary components of those plans, (2) the extent to which states that experienced federally declared disasters in 2005 also had child welfare disaster plans, and (3) how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) supports states' efforts to develop child welfare disaster plans.

On June 26, 2006, we briefed Congressional staff on the results of our study of state child welfare disaster planning. This report formally conveys the information provided during that briefing. In summary, we found that twenty states and the District of Columbia reported that they had a written child welfare disaster plan. However, the plans varied in the extent to which they included selected child welfare program components, such as identifying children under state care who may be dispersed. Specifically, nineteen state plans addressed preserving child welfare records, thirteen state plans addressed identifying children who may be dispersed, eleven state plans addressed identifying new child welfare cases and providing services, ten state plans addressed coordinating services and sharing information with other states, and six state plans addressed placing children from other states. Of the 29 states and Puerto Rico that experienced a federally declared disaster in 2005, 8 reported having a written child welfare disaster plan. While HHS does not have the authority to require states to develop child welfare disaster plans, it has assisted states in developing child welfare disaster plans by issuing guidance in 1995 and funding technical assistance on disaster planning through its network of national resource centers. The guidance generally does not address the potential dispersion of children and families in a disaster. In addition, child welfare officials reported that additional disaster planning assistance from the federal government would be helpful, including information or training on how to develop a disaster plan and what to include.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress enacted the Child and Family Services Improvement Act (Public Law 109-288) in September 2006. Section 6 of the Act requires that within one year of the act's passage, states have procedures in place for how state child welfare programs would respond to a disaster in accordance with criteria established by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. These criteria should include how a state would 1)identify, locate, and continue availability of services for children under state care or supervision who are displaced or adversely affected by a disaster; 2) respond, as appropriate, to new child welfare cases in areas adversely affected by a disaster, and provide services in those cases; 3) remain in communication with caseworkers and other essential child welfare personnel who are displaced because of a disaster; 4) preserve essential program records; and 5) coordinate services and share information with other states.

    Matter: To ensure continuity of services within or across state lines for the children under state care, Congress may wish to consider requiring that states develop and submit child welfare disaster plans for HHS review.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress enacted the Family Services Improvement Act (Public Law 109-288) in September 2006 requiring states to submit disaster plans as part of their applications for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) grants. The Act requires that states have procedures in place for how state child welfare programs would respond to a disaster in accordance with criteria established by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. These criteria should include how a state would: 1) identify, locate, and continue availability of services for children under state care or supervision who are displaced or adversely affected by a disaster; 2) respond, as appropriate, to new child welfare cases in areas adversely affected by a disaster, and provide services in those cases; 3) remain in communication with caseworkers and other essential child welfare personnel who are displaced because of a disaster; 4) preserve essential program records; and 5) coordinate services and share information with other states. In ACF, the Children's Bureau's Training and Technical Assistance (T&TA) Network, which addresses disaster preparedness, response and recovery, has been developing materials that are disseminated through the National Resource Center's (NRC) newsletters, websites, web casts, list servers and T&TA Network (see http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/tta/index.htm). The Children's Bureau made available "Coping with Disaster: A Guide for Child Welfare Agencies" to help child welfare (CW) agencies develop disaster plans. This guide incorporates lessons learned from recent disasters, the need for CW agencies to develop a plan, critical components of a good disaster plan, setting expectations for and roles for CW agencies, and other issues, such as training for foster parents and treating CW staff as disaster victims. This resource was sent to state CW administrators in all 50 states and, along with other products related to disaster preparedness, is posted on the website of the NRC for Organizational Improvement (see http://muskie.usm.maine.edu/helpkids/index.htm). NRCs are available to states and tribes.

    Recommendation: To better assist states in developing child welfare disaster plans, we are recommending that the Secretary of Health and Human Services should ensure that the department's child welfare disaster planning guidance address the dispersion of children and families within and across state lines. This guidance should include information on preserving child welfare records, identifying children who may be dispersed, identifying new child welfare cases and providing services, coordinating services and sharing information with other states, and placing children from other states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress enacted a statute in 2006 requiring states to submit disaster plans as part of their applications for Administration for Children and Families (ACF) grants. ACF's Children's Bureau (CB) Training and Technical Assistance (T&TA) Network, which addresses disaster preparedness, response and recovery, has been providing onsite TA. National Resource Centers (NRC), which also provide guidance and information, are available to states and tribes in reviewing and updating disaster plans. NRCs that may be of particular support and help with plan development and training include: the National CW Resource Center for Organizational Improvement; the NRC for Child Protective Services; the National CW Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues; the NRC for Permanency and Family Connections; and the NRC for CW Data and Technology.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should develop and provide training on child welfare disaster planning to all states.

    Agency Affected: Congress

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Aug 21, 2014

Jul 16, 2014

May 29, 2014

May 22, 2014

Apr 24, 2014

Apr 9, 2014

Jan 30, 2014

Sep 13, 2013

May 15, 2013

Looking for more? Browse all our products here