Report: V.I. Head Start could be neglecting neediest kids


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ST. THOMAS - An Inspector General's report has found that the territory's Head Start programs may have neglected the territory's neediest children.

The joint report was written by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' and the Department of the Interior's Offices of Inspectors General. The purpose of the report was to review the V.I. Human Services Department processes for determining Head Start eligibility in the territory.

Head Start is a federal program that is operated using federal funds by the V.I. Human Services Department.

The territory has 24 Head Start centers on St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix.

The Inspector General's report released last month reviewed Head Start records for the grant period of Sept. 1, 2009, to Aug. 31, 2010, during which time the territory received $8.3 million to run the Head Start program.

During that time period, the local program served 894 children and had 214 children on the waiting list.

"Children are automatically eligible for enrollment in the Head Start program if they are homeless, in foster care or a recipient of public assistance," the report states.

Skewed enrollment

Each Head Start grantee must fill 10 percent of its enrollment with children with disabilities who need special education and related services. The 10 percent minimum can be waived if the grantee can prove they made an effort to comply but that not enough children with disabilities wished to participate.

The remaining slots are supposed to go to needy children based on their parents' income.

When determining whether a child is eligible for Head Start, Human Services staff assign a score to each applicant to rank children based on level of need.

The department uses a computerized system - the Child Output Planning Assessment - to rank the children.

Out of the total 893 children enrolled in the V.I. Head Start program as of Aug. 31, 2010, the audit looked at 100 randomly selected children determined to be eligible for Head Start, including 10 children with disabilities.

"We determined that 11 of the 100 children in our random sample received more priority selection points than they should have. On the basis of our sample results, we estimated that 84 children - nearly one in every 10 - enrolled in the Head Start program as of August 31, 2010, received more priority selection points than they should have, potentially placing them in the Head Start program ahead of needier children on the program's waiting list because DHS retains waiting list priority rankings only for the current enrollment," the report said.

Shoddy records-keeping

The inspectors general said they could not determine whether the territory's neediest children received priority when Human Services was filling Head Start slots because the financial eligibility data entered in the computer system was inaccurate; the department did not keep documents needed to determine eligibility; and Human Services did not meet the required enrollment level for children with disabilities.

The Inspector General's report recommended the V.I. Human Services Department:

- Ensure financial eligibility determinations are based on accurate information.

- Retain records of documents used to determine a child's eligibility.

- Ensure the enrollment and/or waiver requirements are met for children with disabilities.

Human Services response

Overall, the V.I. Human Services Department concurred with the report's findings and recommendations.

Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch said he disagreed with one of the report's findings about two children included in the sample who were homeless.

The Inspector General said enough documentation did not exist to support the claim of homelessness, but Finch said it did. Human Services maintained that the places the children were staying could not provide documentation without jeopardizing themselves and the families they are sheltering.

The Inspector General said in one of the cases, the only indication of the child's homelessness was a notation on a sticky note in the file.

Finch said the department has addressed many of the concerns raised in the report, changing the process for entering financial eligibility information into the computer system and using the annual income levels from the appropriate year to determine eligibility. Finch also said that under the federal standards, the children with disabilities are children who have had Individual Education Plans created for them.

While the number of disabled children enrolled in Head Start during the audit period was just less than the 10 percent, that was only the children with Individual Education Plans, according to Finch. Several other children would have met the requirements but did not yet have educational plans drafted for them, he said.

If those children were included in the tally, the Human Services Department would have exceeded the 10 percent requirement, according to Finch.

Finch said the department has pursued and received waivers for the subsequent years if the numbers of disabled children enrolled in Head Start fell below 10 percent. Additionally, he said Human Services has increased communication with the V.I. Education Department to refer children suspected to have disabilities to Education to be assessed and have an Individual Education Plan developed for them if needed.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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