After News of Fraud, HHS Plans Unannounced Visits to Head Start Programs

Unannounced reviews are coming soon to Head Start centers around the country in the wake of a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office. It found several instances of Head Start centers accepting families with income levels too high to qualify -- with employees sometimes encouraging them to hide their earnings.

With a few exceptions, Head Start is designed to be available only to families at or below the federal poverty line.
 
Prompted by two calls to GAO’s FraudNet hotline, in 2008 and 2009, the agency investigated those two sites. It also launched a sting operation at additional centers, sending employees to pose as parents who were hoping to enroll their children in Head Start.
 
Carmen R. Nazario, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, responded to the GAO’s report yesterday by declaring that her agency would start conducting unannounced monitoring visits to Head Start grantees.
 
The fraud problems come on the heels of scrutiny of Head Start programs over the last several years. Yesterday, the House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on GAO’s findings.
 
In brief, here’s what the GAO learned after following up on those hotline calls:
  • One Head Start grantee in Texas had nine of 28 centers with more than the allowed 10 percent of over-income families.
  • In one center 44 percent of the families were over-income, with two families reporting income of more than $110,000.
  • Head Start staff at some centers encouraged families to say they were homeless, making them automatically eligible for Head Start services.
  • A Midwest Migrant and Season Head Start program was moving children from one center to another center, leaving children on the rolls at both centers to make it appear that both centers had reached full enrollment.
Realizing that these types of dishonest activities could also be taking place in other locations, the GAO conducted undercover tests at different centers in six states and the District of Columbia, chosen because they had open slots. In eight of 13 eligibility tests, the fictitious families were not only told that they were eligible, but also were encouraged to misrepresent their eligibility.
 
At seven of the centers, the GAO reports, employees knowingly disregarded portions of fictitious families’ income to enable over-income families appear to be under-income, and at four centers, applications were doctored by someone to show the families were under-income. GAO investigators recorded conversations between the fictitious families and employees, which can be heard here.
 
It is difficult to say how widespread these activities might be; but, it is likely that in some centers, families who need Head Start services the most aren’t getting them.  This is the real tragedy of the GAO news.
 
Gregory D. Kutz, managing director for forensic audits and special investigations at GAO, testified at yesterday’s hearing and said that one of GAO’s major concerns is that under-income children are put on waiting lists while over-income children are enrolled. Of the 550 Head Start centers the GAO contacted, only 44 had open slots. According to the report, in Florida alone, 8,000 children are on waiting lists for Head Start programs. It is clear that there is a need for more Head Start programs to serve the extensive demand.
 
There is also a need for better oversight of existing programs to make sure eligible children are accepted. Kutz said the system is vulnerable to both grantee and beneficiary fraud, in part, because income documents are not verified and grantees are not currently required to keep copies of source documents.
 
Nazario of HHS pledged to take several measures to strengthen federal oversight. In the coming weeks, she said, HHS will:
  • Conduct unannounced monitoring visits to Head Start grantees;
  • Create and publicize a web-based hotline that will allow those with information of impropriety to report it to her office;
  • Develop new regulations that address verification requirements and staff training on eligibility criteria and procedures;
  • Increase oversight, particularly of grantees with identified risk factors; and
  • Require grantees to recompete for their grants when questions arise about whether they are offering high-quality services or have management lapses.
She said the recompeting regulations, which are required under the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start Act (and are already late according to the law’s deadlines), would be issued this summer for public comment. Nazario said they will articulate which grantees will be required to compete for continued Head start funding. (We’ll have the coverage here on Early Ed Watch.)
 
Expect a flurry of coverage about the GAO’s findings in the media this week. Unfortunately, this will cast a pall over the federal government’s only preschool program for poor families – a program that has been shown in independent research studies to lead to gains in health, literacy and social-emotional development for young children. (While the recent Impact Study showed that the academic gains no longer show up when children exit the first grade, we have argued here that the quality of the elementary schools and the lack of alignment between Head Start and those schools could be a likely culprit.) We hope that this news and the coming reviews, though clearly needed, do not lead to a reduction in federal investments for high-quality early learning programs.
 
With better federal oversight of Head Start grantees, we can be sure that the children who will benefit from Head Start programs get them.
 
For more coverage on the GAO’s findings read here, here, here and here.

 

Author:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program and co-director of the Family Centered Social Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.