Congressional testimony: Modernizing child welfare

On Sept. 28, 2023, Utah DHHS Executive Director Tracy Gruber testified as part of a panel discussion in front of the House Subcommittee on Work and Welfare, part of larger U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means.

Director Gruber provided a 5-minute oral statement, which follows here, and a 10-page written statement for the congressional record. The 10-page statement is linked below the oral statement.

Oral statement by Utah DHHS Executive Director Tracy Gruber  

Before the House Subcommittee on Work and Welfare
September 28, 2023

Good morning, Subcommittee Chair LaHood, Ranking Member Davis and members of the subcommittee. 

I’m Tracy Gruber, executive director of the Utah Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which includes our state’s child welfare agency: the Division of Child and Family Services or DCFS.

Thank you for the invitation to highlight Utah’s experiences leveraging federal funding to strengthen families and protect children from abuse and neglect. Your efforts to modernize our nation’s child welfare system will help families.

Today, I’ll talk about how modernization means streamlining requirements and giving states flexibility to administer federal dollars according to shared outcomes that are informed by data. Title IV-B reauthorization is the perfect time to do this.

But first, I want to share a success story:

Recently, DCFS became involved with a family of 5. During a DCFS in-home visit, we learned the family was struggling to make ends meet and was at risk of losing their home. They relied on food from the local food bank, and their 3 children were on the brink of needing foster care services. 

DCFS connected the family to short-term resources to pay rent and access to medical care for one of the children. These services were funded with Title IV-B and allowed 3 children to safely stay in their homes, saving significant state and federal dollars. In other cases, we connect families to parenting-skills classes. The Family First Prevention Services Act is truly an investment in prevention.

So here is our nation’s opportunity: How can these critical, prevention activities, expanded in Family First, become the centerpiece of child welfare?

Though IV-B funding is a mere 2.5% of our state’s overall child welfare budget, it carries important flexibility, which states need to strengthen families and keep children safe from abuse and neglect.

We’re proud of Utah’s successes in using this funding. But here are just two of our challenges:

  1. Federal requirements, such as set-asides and funding thresholds in IV-B, hamper our ability to provide the services and interventions needed within unique communities.
  2. Title IV-E Prevention requires programs to meet time-intensive and costly rigorous evaluation thresholds on the Prevention Clearinghouse. This hampers innovation. 

Now despite this, we leveraged IV-E funding for a uniquely Utah service, Families First, a parenting-skills program recently placed on the Clearinghouse. When approved, we expanded this service to families who are IV-E and IV-B eligible. This shift to IV-E freed up additional IV-B funds, which we used to establish another new parenting-skills program for adults who are lower functioning.

The current funding scheme is also challenging to administer. Title IV-B  reauthorization is the perfect opportunity to reduce these burdens. In doing so, states will have more capacity to serve families. 

A reduction in administrative burdens could include focusing on outcomes by allowing states to combine multiple funding streams to pilot comprehensive approaches for people in our services.

And what about the people who serve? Ensuring the best outcomes for kids requires a stable and skilled workforce. 

We cannot ignore their needs. The funding must afford states  opportunities to support the well-being of our workforces so they’re professionally and emotionally equipped to meet the needs of the children they serve.

To truly modernize the child welfare system to protect America’s most vulnerable youth, we must find ways to: 

  • Expand flexibility.
  • Eliminate set-asides.
  • Reduce administrative burdens and
  • Focus on outcomes. 

This hearing is a great starting point to highlight the opportunity to modernize this complex system.
My written statement provides a deeper look into the Utah child welfare system; supports the case for added flexibility; and highlights our challenges, including 37% staff turnover; and how Utah has innovated through these challenges. 

Thank you and I look forward to answering your questions.

Written statement

PDF, Google Doc