ACF Cannot Ensure That All Child Victims of Abuse and Neglect Have Court Representation
WHY WE DID THIS STUDY
As a condition of grant funding under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), as amended, a State must assure through a certification that it has in effect and is enforcing a State law or operating a Statewide program that includes provisions and procedures requiring that in every case of child abuse or neglect that results in a judicial proceeding, a representative (e.g., an attorney or nonattorney volunteer) is appointed to advocate for the child's best interests. However, States' annual reporting to ACF suggests that some States may not be appointing a representative for every child victim.
These factors raise concerns about whether ACF has taken sufficient action to ensure that vulnerable children receive appropriate court representation to protect their best interests.
HOW WE DID THIS STUDY
To assess ACF's oversight in selected States, we surveyed and interviewed the 10 States with the largest numbers of child victims of abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2016. We also summarized ACF officials' interview responses and agency documentation about procedures to oversee CAPTA's requirement for court representation.
WHAT WE FOUND
ACF is responsible for overseeing States' compliance with CAPTA's requirement for court representation. However, ACF does little to monitor or enforce States' compliance with this requirement, relying instead on States' self-certification.
ACF officials reported that ACF considers a State compliant as long as the State has assured through a certification that it has in effect provisions and procedures requiring court representation for child victims-regardless of whether the State effectively implements and enforces that requirement. ACF officials reported that CAPTA does not provide ACF with the authority to look behind State assurances and monitor whether States actually appoint court representatives to all child victims.
This is concerning because 5 of the 10 States we reviewed indicated that they do not have systems in place to monitor whether all child victims are appointed a court representative. States also reported numerous challenges that, in some cases, impeded their ability to promptly appoint a court representative to every child victim.
ACF officials explained that ACF prioritizes providing States with technical assistance to support compliance rather than penalizing States. However, none of the States we reviewed received technical assistance from ACF related to the court-representation requirement, and only four were aware that ACF offers such assistance.
We also found that ACF does not receive complete and accurate court-representative data from States, impeding its ability to identify and respond to problems. Of the 10 States we reviewed, only 2 confirmed the accuracy of the court-representative appointment figures that they voluntarily reported to ACF. State officials described technical challenges that impede reporting, such as a lack of centralized data systems. Additionally, some States face challenges related to communication between court or representative program staff and child welfare agency staff.
WHAT WE RECOMMEND
We recommend that ACF conduct oversight activities-seeking statutory authority as necessary-to identify, and proactively provide technical assistance to, States that may not appoint a court representative to every child victim. We also recommend that ACF proactively identify and address obstacles that States face in reporting complete and accurate court-representative data. ACF did not explicitly concur or nonconcur with our recommendations. However, ACF asserted a lack of statutory authority to implement our recommendations and stated that our recommended approach is inconsistent with the structure of the CAPTA State grant program.