ACF Should Improve Oversight of Head Start To Better Protect Children's Safety
WHY WE DID THIS STUDY
The Office of Head Start (OHS)—part of ACF—oversees Head Start grant recipients to ensure their compliance with program standards, including standards addressing children's safety. OIG initiated this review to determine the extent to which recipients received adverse findings from ACF for violating program standards that prohibit child abuse, leaving a child unsupervised (lack of supervision), or releasing a child to an unauthorized person (unauthorized release); assess ACF's oversight of how recipients identify, address, and prevent such incidents; and identify opportunities to better protect children.
HOW WE DID THIS STUDY
We reviewed data from ACF monitoring of Head Start grant recipients to identify adverse findings for child abuse, lack of supervision, unauthorized release, and failure to report significant incidents. We also reviewed narratives from ACF monitoring reports to determine the number and nature of incidents associated with each adverse finding. Additionally, we obtained data from child care licensing agencies and child protective services agencies in Florida and Texas to determine whether ACF was aware of all incidents that those State agencies had identified. Finally, we interviewed OHS staff and reviewed internal and public documents to better understand ACF's processes and criteria for monitoring, incident response, and adverse finding determinations related to child abuse, lack of supervision, and unauthorized release.
WHAT WE FOUND
Approximately one in four Head Start grant recipients received an adverse finding from ACF for child abuse, lack of supervision, or unauthorized release between October 2015 and May 2020. These adverse findings encompassed 1,029 individual incidents.
Additionally, Head Start grant recipients did not promptly self-report all incidents of child abuse, lack of supervision, and unauthorized release as required. Of recipients with one or more adverse findings from ACF in these three categories, 24 percent also received an adverse finding for failure to promptly report these incidents. Further, using data from 2 States for 2017 through 2019, OIG identified 130 additional incidents that occurred in Head Start centers but of which ACF was not aware. ACF noted that recipients are not required to report incidents in which the victim is not a child funded by Head Start, even if the incident occurs in a blended classroom that includes Head Start enrollees.
Head Start grant recipients most often addressed incidents of child abuse, lack of supervision, and unauthorized release at Head Start centers through a combination of disciplinary action, administrative improvements, and training. Additionally, ACF uses monitoring data to target recipients for training and technical assistance on these issues. Some OHS regional offices have also developed data systems and procedures to better track and respond to incidents that threaten children's safety.
WHAT WE RECOMMEND
To ensure that ACF is aware of and can appropriately respond to all incidents in which children in the care of a Head Start center are abused, left unsupervised, or released to an unauthorized person, we recommend that ACF (1) improve Head Start grant recipients' self-reporting of incidents of child abuse, lack of supervision, and unauthorized release through better guidance and stronger consequences for failure to report; (2) extend the reporting requirement to include incidents in blended classrooms in which the victim is not a Head Start-funded child; (3) improve data-sharing with States about incidents in Head Start centers; and (4) disseminate information about innovative practices that OHS regional offices have developed to better identify and prevent incidents that threaten children's safety.