Imagine you're a foster care caseworker in Wisconsin trying to help a child move from a group home to a relative's house in Maryland. In most of the country, that kind of state-to-state transfer is hampered by paperwork, layers of bureaucracy and conflicting state policies that can lead to delays of anywhere from three months to over a year. But federal officials now believe they've found a solution: a web-based tool that speeds up interstate placements. Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a $3.6 million grant to expand its use across the country.
Since last August, the District of Columbia, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, South Carolina and Wisconsin have participated in a $1.25 million federal pilot to implement the National Electronic Interstate Compact Enterprise (NEICE), a web-based system that allows child welfare agencies to exchange information quickly at a lower cost. A full report about the NEICE pilot is due out later this summer, but the results released so far are encouraging. Over the past 17 months, all six jurisdictions cut the time it takes to place foster children across state lines by 20 percent to 40 percent, depending on the state and the urgency of the placement. So far, states have successfully placed roughly two-thirds of the 6,000 foster children entered into the NEICE system.
The web-based system makes some straightforward improvements to the way states share information about foster children. Currently, when a state is trying to place a foster child with a family in another state, "there are pretty cumbersome processes," said Mical Peterson, an administrator in Minnesota's Child Safety and Permanency Division. Each potential placement requires packets with as many as 100 pages of documents related to the child's health, education and court history. The packets then have to be copied in triplicate because two states and a local child welfare office all have to review the documents. They take time to draft, mail and review. With NEICE, those packets are digitized and emailed.
A 2006 report to the Administration of Children and Families shows why states are so focused on improving interstate transfers. Federal data suggest interstate placements are more likely to be permanent than in-state placements. That's probably because children are more likely to live with relatives when they go through an interstate placement. Several studies have found that living with family members tends to mean greater stability in the lives of foster children.
While researchers and advocates in child welfare welcomed news about the grant, they cautioned that technological fixes only go so far and structural problems continue to undermine the state-to-state transfer of foster children. Tracey Field, who oversees child welfare strategy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, points to the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, a voluntary legal agreement between 50 states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands. The compact dates back to 1960, when states decided they needed national protocols for moving a foster child from one state to another. But today the compact is "one of the most antagonizing, antiquated, and burdensome administrative processes required as part of the child-placement continuum," according to the American Public Human Services Association, a nonprofit representing state and local departments of social services. "At best, [the compact] provides for a fragmented system that breeds an inefficient and sometimes ineffective use of time and resources."
A report commissioned last year by the Casey Foundation detailed some of the problems with the compact. For one, it requires the state receiving a foster child to assess whether the family is suitable for accepting that child, but the current process for that assessment is dysfunctional. The Casey report concluded that the compact "contains no specific deadlines for the completion" of the assessment, and that it "does not set clear standards for how child welfare agencies must evaluate potential placements."
Those standards are important, the report said, because state agencies appeared to be denying placements for seemingly arbitrary reasons. "While the technology will certainly help, it doesn't cure a lot of problems with the [compact]," said Vivek Sankaran, a University of Michigan law professor who wrote the report for the Casey Foundation. "A state can deny a placement for any reason that it deems fit and it's insulated from any kind of review."
Field points to another problem with the compact that better technology won't solve: Caseworkers tend to prioritize foster children in their own state over children from another state. "When you get another state saying we need you to check out a home, that means someone from the receiving state is going to have to do a home study," she explained. "That detracts from the job that they're doing for the kids in their own state."