HHS report finds incidents of abuse, neglect and unauthorized release in Head Start programs

The Department of Health and Human Services building is seen in the evening in Washington Sunday, April 5, 2009.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
The Department of Health and Human Services building is seen in the evening in Washington Sunday, April 5, 2009.

A review by a federal oversight agency found that a quarter of Head Start grant recipients, federally funded programs that provide child care for low-income families, had incidents of child abuse, lack of supervision or unauthorized releases to adults.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a report on Wednesday of its findings based on incidents recorded from October 2015 to May 2020. The agency found more than 1,000 instances of abuse, neglect or unauthorized release over the nearly five-year period.

According to the office’s findings, 27 percent of Head Start grant recipients — 438 out of 1,611 — received adverse findings from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). One finding could be connected to multiple incidents.

The OIG’s report was compiled through a combination of federal monitoring data from the Office of Head Start (OHS), public information reports, state data, interviews with staff members and OHS administration action records.

The most cited adverse finding was a lack of supervision among the programs, with nearly one out of five recipients found to have such incidents. The OIG report cited specific examples including one in which a contracted bus driver left a child unattended on a bus in “very cold weather.” That same day, the child’s parent noted discoloration on their feet which a physician later found to be evidence of frostbite.

In the reviewed time period, the OIG found that 12 percent of grant recipients had incidents of child abuse. One Head Start director reported seeing a teacher dragging a child across the floor, placing him on a cot in an office and turning off the lights. When the child got off the cot, the teacher then reportedly pushed him into one of the children’s cubbies and stood in front of him to stop him from leaving.

The reported incidents of physical child abuse included slapping, squeezing and biting. Parents also came forward with reports of verbal abuse coming from staff members who they said demeaned the children and called them names such as “chancho,” meaning pig in Spanish.

Two percent of grant recipients had reported incidents of unauthorized release, where children were released to unauthorized adults.

In a statement provided to The Hill, an HHS spokesperson said, “The Administration for Children and Families takes every child safety incident seriously. Staff swiftly respond to any allegations to ensure children involved receive the support they need. Programs take corrective action to prevent future incidents and ensure every child has the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential in a safe and healthy environment. 

An HHS official also stressed that while this report reviewed roughly a thousand incidents, Head Start benefitted nearly a million children in the U.S. overall.

“Our data show that Head Start programs are extraordinarily safe for children with 99.99 percent of children served not impacted by a safety incident,” the HHS spokesperson said.

The OIG found that grant recipients often did not promptly report these incidents even though they are required to do so “immediately or as soon as practicable.”

In response to these findings, the agency determined that many Head Start programs may not understand the reporting requirements for them and are not required to report incidents involving children who are not Head Start-funded. The office also found that ACF does not often communicate with state agencies about reported incidents.

The OIG advised the ACF impose stronger consequences for failure to report incidents and expand the reporting requirements to include children who are not funded by Head Start.

Updated at 4:08 p.m.

Tags Child abuse Department of Health and Human Services Head Start Head Start Head Start programs HHS HHS

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