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Spotlight On... Head Start Health and Safety

Poison ivy, a gas-powered hedge trimmer, toxic chemicals, rusty nails, a machete. . . . What do all of these items have in common?

OIG auditors found them all in reach of children at Head Start locations.

From May 2009 to October 2010, OIG conducted site visits at 175 facilities managed by 24 high-risk Head Start grantees in 8 States. We wanted to determine whether they followed Federal, State, and local health and safety regulations and standards.

Our report, Review of Head Start Grantees' Compliance with Health and Safety Requirements, shows that health and safety issues were prevalent among the grantees. None of the 24 grantees fully complied with Federal or State requirements to protect children from unsafe materials and equipment. For example:

  • 88% of facilities had toxic chemicals that were accessible to children;
  • 38% had doors that were unlocked or propped open during hours of operation, allowing unrestricted access; and
  • 63% had play areas with debris (like glass or nails) or other harmful conditions (such as protruding tree roots, large drain grates).

In addition, 21 of 24 grantees did not fully comply with Federal or State requirements to conduct criminal records checks and recurring background checks, document those checks, check lists of workers barred from childcare, or check child abuse or neglect registries.

The good news is that the reporting of these conditions led to safer conditions for children. Since the release of OIG's first individual Head Start health and safety report in December 2009, 21 of the 24 Head Start facilities corrected their problems, and 3 grantees closed.

Recovery Act

The audit discussed above is one of several Recovery Act reports conducted by OIG. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known as the Recovery Act, entrusted more than $150 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to improve access to health and social services; invest in the future of health care reform through advances in health information technology, prevention, and scientific research; and to stimulate jobs creation. Lesser known, however, is that the Recovery Act funds allocated $48 million for OIG to review HHS stimulus spending and to enhance OIG's accountability and enforcement activities to prevent fraud, waste, and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.

As part of this charge, in addition to the Head Start health and safety audit, OIG published a review of 83 Early Head Start (birth to age 3) applicants to inform the Administration for Children and Families' (ACF) administering of Recovery Act funds. OIG tested financial viability, capacity to manage and account for Federal funds, and capability to operate Head Start programs in accordance with Federal requirements. Using our findings, ACF awarded funds to 8 applicants, denied funds to 15 applicants, and provided 60 applicants with funds on the condition that they receive increased ACF oversight, training, and technical assistance. OIG is currently conducting a series of 24 Head Start grantee audits to evaluate financial and management areas. Overall, because of OIG's findings, HHS potentially safeguarded more than $150 million in Recovery Act funds and regular appropriations for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

OIG also conducted Recovery Act oversight work in a variety of HHS program areas, including:

  • management of Recovery Act funds for Medicaid;
  • high-risk community action agencies;
  • community health centers;
  • the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant award process; and
  • information security controls in HHS's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

Head Start Health and Safety Audits

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Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services | 330 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20201