Implementing Welfare Reform Requirements for Teenage Parents: Lessons from Experience in Four States . APPENDIX D: CASE STUDY OF VIRGINIA

10/31/1997

The Virginia Independence Program (VIP), the state's welfare reform initiative implemented in July 1995, imposed two new requirements of particular significance to young parents receiving cash assistance. First, all school-age minors receiving cash assistance (including those who are not parents) must comply with the state's compulsory education laws. Those who do not can have their cash grants reduced. Second, unmarried minor custodial parents receiving cash assistance must live with a parent or with another adult standing "in loco parentis" (in place of the parent). Minor parents who do not comply can have their cash assistance cases closed or their applications for cash assistance denied.

A. OVERVIEW OF THE NEW REQUIREMENTS

1. School Attendance Requirement (Learnfare)

Specific Requirement. As part of VIP, Virginia imposed a statewide school attendance requirement (known as Learnfare) for all school-age children (age 5 to 17) receiving cash assistance. Minors can fulfill the Learnfare requirement through attendance at a public or private school, home school, or GED program. To meet the Learnfare requirement, school-age minors must comply with the state compulsory education laws and must not be considered truant by the local school district.

Monitoring and Enforcement. Compliance with Learnfare is monitored monthly. Each month, the Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS), the agency that administers the state's cash assistance program, provides each of Virginia's 134 school districts with the list of children in their district subject to Learnfare. Districts are then supposed to match the list of names to their enrollment and attendance records and report to the local DSS office the children who are either not enrolled or enrolled but considered truant. Local agencies are also responsible for developing their own procedures for monitoring the attendance of students in private schools and GED programs.

According to DSS procedures, caseworkers are to notify clients if a child on their grant has been identified by the school district as truant. Clients have an opportunity to explain the reason for their child's absence before any sanction is imposed. They are asked to schedule an appointment with their caseworker to develop a plan for returning their child to school. If the parent or other caretaker complies with this plan, the case will not be sanctioned. However, if the parent fails to comply with the plan or fails to come into the welfare office to develop an attendance plan, the cash grant is reduced by the child's portion of the grant. This sanction averages about $60 per month. DSS allows local agencies to determine the specific schedule for attendance monitoring and enforcement.

2. Minor Parent Living Arrangement Requirement

Specific Requirements. As part of VIP, unmarried custodial parents under age 18 are required to live with a parent or with another adult at least 21 years old serving in loco parentis. The adult does not have to be a relative, but the welfare caseworker must consider the adult able to function as a parent for the minor. The state has left it up to local DSS agencies to establish their own guidelines for when an adult can serve in loco parentis. The central DSS office has, however, instructed local agencies that adult boyfriends of minor parents are not acceptable guardians.

The state legislation that created the living arrangement requirement allows two exemptions for unmarried minor parents. First, a minor without a living parent or guardian who can be located is exempt. Second, if the local DSS agency determines that the minor parent's physical or emotional well-being would be jeopardized by compliance with the requirement, the minor parent is exempt. Under procedures established by DSS, this latter exemption requires corroboration, such as a court order, a report from child welfare authorities, or medical records. Under state law, if one of these exemptions exist, the local agency must assist the minor parent in locating an adult-supervised living arrangement.

Monitoring and Enforcement. An unmarried minor parent who heads her own cash assistance case must provide proof of compliance with the living arrangement requirement when she applies for assistance, and then every six months at recertification. Local DSS offices first look for verification of a minor parent's living arrangement through school district records, which typically provide an address and a name of a parent or guardian. Local agencies also use housing authority records for verification when a minor parent claims to live in public housing with her parent or guardian. If the welfare office is unable to verify the minor parent's living arrangement using one of these methods, either a copy of a lease or a letter from the landlord or a neighbor is sufficient proof. If a minor parent does not comply with the living arrangement requirement, state law requires DSS to close her case or deny her application for cash assistance. She continues to be eligible for food stamps and Medicaid.

3. Reorganization Resulting from the New Requirements

The new attendance and living arrangement requirements imposed under VIP did not involve substantial reorganization of DSS programs or responsibilities. As before, teenage parents, as well as other cash assistance cases containing school-age minors, are handled by regular caseworkers who handle all types of cash assistance cases. These caseworkers are responsible for enforcing compliance with Learnfare and for monitoring the living arrangements of minor parents. VIP did not create additional support services as part of the new attendance and living arrangement requirements. Since no special services for Learnfare cases or for teenage parents receiving cash assistance were established, there has been little perceived need for substantial reorganization associated with the new requirements.

B IDENTIFYING MINOR PARENTS RECEIVING CASH ASSISTANCE

Since it was put into place in the 1970s, DSS's central computer system for tracking cash assistance cases has contained a field to allow intake workers and caseworkers to flag minor parents on someone else's cash grant. However, staff in local offices do not consistently use this flag. In January 1997, the system identified 203 minor parents on cash assistance: 116 minor parents who headed their own cases and 87 on someone else's grant. Senior DSS officials acknowledge that this figure seriously undercounts the number of minor parents who receive cash assistance on someone else's grant. DDS estimates that, in January 1997, 265 minor parents were on cash assistance cases but were not identified as minor parents in their computer system, for a total of 468 minor parents receiving cash assistance in the state (see Table D.1). DSS identified these additional "likely" minor parents by searching for cash assistance cases that contained both a grandchild and a minor daughter of the case head and where the minor daughter was at least 13 years older than the grandchild.(1) Based on these estimates, less than one percent of cash assistance cases statewide contain a minor parent.

Based on its current policies, DSS can enforce its living arrangement and school attendance requirement without identifying minor parents who receive cash assistance on someone else's grant. For example, it is not necessary to identify minor parents on an adult relative's case to enforce the living arrangement requirement, since only the living arrangements of minor parents who head their own cash assistance cases are monitored. (As in other states, those on someone else's case are assumed to be in compliance.)

TABLE D.1

NUMBER OF CASH ASSISTANCE CASES AND NUMBER OF MINOR PARENTS RECEIVING CASH ASSISTANCE JULY 1995 THROUGH JANUARY 1997

    Number of Minor Parents
  Number of Cash Assistance Cases Who Head Their Own Cash Assistance Case On Someone Else's Cash Assistance Case Receiving Cash Assistance
July 1995 68,462 125 368 493
January 1996 65,371 148 425 573
July 1996 61,388 114 397 511
January 1997 55,498 116 352 468

Source: Virginia Department of Social Services estimates.

Similarly, because Learnfare applies to all school-age minors (not just minor parents) and because DSS offers no services specifically for teenage parents, the agency does not need to identify minor parents for these reasons. It is not surprising, therefore, that DSS's identification of minor parents in its computer system is incomplete.

C. IMPLEMENTATION OF THE LEARNFARE ATTENDANCE REQUIREMENT

1. The Planning Phase

Getting Learnfare off the ground was a major effort, according to state-level DSS staff members. One senior DSS official said of Learnfare, "This was the hardest part of welfare reform." In preparation for implementation of the new attendance policy in September 1995, DSS began coordinating with the Virginia Department of Education (DOE) during the spring and summer of 1995. While DSS was working with DOE during this planning phase, two problems arose.

First, the legislation creating Learnfare required sanctioning of cash assistance cases containing a "truant" child. However, while writing the new regulations, DSS learned that school districts across the state did not use a standard definition of truancy. Therefore, the agency developed an attendance standard of its own. In its original form, this standard defined truancy as (1) 10 or more unexcused absences in a month, or (2) 8 or more unexcused absences in each of two consecutive months.

The second problem DSS encountered during the planning phase was the very limited control DOE could exert over local school districts. As in most states, Virginia has a strong tradition of local control of education. Therefore, the ability of DSS to coordinate implementation of Learnfare at the state level through DOE turned out to be very limited. Instead, DSS and its local agencies had to coordinate with each of Virginia's 134 school districts. This required DSS staff to spend more time than had been anticipated preparing training materials for local districts and addressing their questions about Learnfare procedures.

In September 1995, DSS sent written materials to all of Virginia's school districts, explaining the attendance information DSS needed from schools and the procedures for providing DSS the information. In October 1995, DSS and DOE conducted an audio conference presentation and a question-and-answer session covering Learnfare for staff members from schools and local DSS offices.

2. Changes to Learnfare During Initial Implementation

Local DSS agencies believed the original attendance standard, which allowed as many nine unexcused absences in a month before a child was considered truant, to be too lenient; so did many state legislators. In addition, many school districts did not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences and, thus, were unable to track the number of unexcused absences, as required by the original attendance standard. In response to these concerns and problems, DSS amended the Learnfare regulations in early 1996, redefining truancy as consistent with the state's compulsory school attendance laws. At the same time, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that amended these laws, setting a stricter attendance standard for all students (not just those receiving cash assistance). Both the new Learnfare regulations and the new compulsory attendance legislation went into effect July 1, 1996.

Under the 1996 compulsory attendance legislation, schools are required to attempt to contact the parent of any frequently absent child to determine the reason for the absences. The legislation defines students as "frequently absent" if they have (1) three consecutive absences, (2) five absences within a month, or (3) seven absences within a calendar quarter. If the parent or guardian has not contacted the school regarding the absences, and has failed to respond to a written request for an explanation of the absences within three days of the date of the notice, the law specifies that the child be considered truant. Unlike the original Learnfare standard, the new truancy policy does not require schools to track the specific number of unexcused absences. Instead, schools are to identify frequently absent students and then investigate the reason for these absences.

During the first few months of the Learnfare requirement, DSS mailed each of Virginia's 134 school districts a computer disk containing a list of all school-age children receiving AFDC in their district. Within a few months, however, it became clear that this method was too time-consuming and costly. As an alternative, in January 1996, DSS established a computer bulletin board where the agency posts the lists of Learnfare children for each of the state's school districts. Using a modem and a toll-free number, a district can access the bulletin board, but only for the Learnfare students in its own schools. Many smaller school districts do not use this automated system; instead, they find it simpler to get the relatively short list of Learnfare students for their districts directly from the local DSS agency.

3. The Attendance Monitoring Process

DSS procedures specify that school districts are to match the list of Learnfare students with their attendance records and report to the local DSS agency students who are either not enrolled or enrolled but considered truant. Attendance monitoring for students in the public school system takes place on a monthly basis. The state has not set a specific timetable for how quickly attendance information must be received from schools by local DSS agencies. Development of a specific schedule for attendance monitoring is left up to local agencies and school districts.

As discussed earlier, DSS refined the Learnfare truancy definition at the local level. However, based on discussions with staff members from one of the largest local DSS agencies (serving almost 10 percent of the statewide caseload), it appears that some confusion remains over the definition of truancy under Learnfare.

Caseworkers from one large local DSS agency, serving almost 5,000 cash assistance cases, reported that they spend substantial time following up on the hundreds of potential truants reported by the local school district. Each month, the local school district sends the welfare agency a list of about 400 truants. Upon investigation, however, DSS caseworkers often discover that many of these "truants" are actually students who have moved or enrolled in private school. The rest (as many as 300, in some months) typically are students who were out sick and are already back in school.(2) State DSS staff indicated that, based on state-level policy, local districts should not report as truant students who are out sick for only a few days. The large number of students reported by this school district as truant each month suggests that the district may have misunderstood DSS's definition of truancy. Furthermore, it appears that this misunderstanding has placed a significant burden on staff time for this local DSS agency.

In spite of these difficulties, staff in this local DSS agency reported an unexpected benefit of exchanging information with the local school district. A report to DSS by a local school district that a Learnfare student is not enrolled often indicates that the minor no longer resides in the area and therefore should not be receiving cash assistance from the local DSS agency. Local staff indicated that several cases of fraud had been uncovered through these computer matches with the local school district.

Learnfare required local welfare agencies and school districts to work together, something rarely done in the past. Establishing working relationships posed substantial challenges. For example, state DSS officials reported that some school districts were initially resistant to monitoring compliance with Learnfare. According to DSS staff, some districts felt that they were not involved with developing policy and therefore should not be required to help enforce it. Many districts considered having to provide the local welfare agency a monthly list of truants a major burden because of staffing limitations, as well as initial confusion over the truancy definition. According to state DSS staff, however, this latter concern is no longer a major issue, because of the revisions to the truancy definition made in 1996. In addition, district staff have become more comfortable and familiar with the reporting procedures.

State DSS officials also reported problems associated with school districts' limited computer experience. Many districts had difficulty dialing into the state's computer system to retrieve the list of Learnfare students. This usually occurred in districts without the appropriate equipment or software, or where the staff members assigned to retrieve the data were inexperienced with computers. These problems have diminished substantially as districts have learned the procedures and acquired the necessary equipment. DSS's central office provides ongoing technical support to assist local school districts with retrieving lists of Learnfare students from their computer bulletin board.

According to state DSS staff, some local agencies experienced problems exchanging information with districts because the districts did not have students' social security numbers. In other localities, schools were reluctant to report students with poor attendance records because of concerns over violating students' right to confidentiality. According to state welfare officials, confidentiality concerns regarding Learnfare were resolved by the state's attorney general's office, which concluded that reporting truancy to the local DSS agency was not a violation of a student's right to confidentiality.

With few exceptions, school district boundaries in Virginia are county- or city-wide, as are the boundaries for local DSS agencies. For this reason, in almost every instance, local DSS agencies deal with only one school district, and school districts deal with only one DSS agency when monitoring school attendance. This correspondence of school district and DSS agency boundaries along county and city borders greatly simplifies interaction between schools and local welfare offices concerning Learnfare. In other states, where each county is divided into numerous school districts, the necessary interaction between schools and local welfare agencies to enforce a broad attendance requirement may be substantially more complicated.

DSS policy requires local agencies to develop procedures for monitoring the attendance of students enrolled in private schools and GED programs. Staff in the local DSS agency visited for the study estimated that about five percent of their Learnfare students were in education programs outside the public school system. Caseworkers from this agency reported that they monitor the attendance of the few students attending private schools by contacting the schools directly. One caseworker said that she checks attendance of her private school students every six months, at recertification, as well as additional times, "when I think of it." Caseworkers reported that they monitor the attendance of Learnfare students in GED programs, using monthly attendance forms completed by the GED instructor.

4. Enforcement of the Learnfare Requirement

Under DSS policy, when a child is reported by the school district as truant, the caseworker is to attempt to schedule an appointment with the case head to develop an attendance plan for returning the child to school. As part of establishing this plan, the caseworker must determine the reasons for the child's frequent absences. According to state-level policy, this attendance plan should specify the actions that constitute compliance, as well as a time frame for achieving compliance. State policy requires that whenever a child is reported as truant, a plan must be developed and signed by both the case head and the caseworker.

Local practice does not appear to be entirely consistent with this state-level policy. For example, the three caseworkers interviewed for this study indicated that, in a typical month, the local school district reports as truant four to eight children on each of their caseloads. Nonetheless, all three caseworkers reported that, during the first 18 months of the Learnfare policy, they had never worked with a client to develop an official plan for returning a child to school. According to these workers, in most cases, they simply telephone the case head to determine the reason for the child's absences. If the parent or guardian reports that the child has been out sick (as is the case for the large majority of those reported as truant), the caseworkers said they typically do not require the client to come into the welfare office to develop a plan to address the attendance problem, nor do they require verification of the illness from a doctor. However, the caseworkers reported that they could demand verification of the illness if they became suspicious of repeated absences, but that it was up to them to decide when to impose a stricter standard.

If a parent or guardian fails to comply with the plan developed by the caseworker for addressing the truancy problem, or if he or she fails to come into the welfare office to develop a plan, the case can be sanctioned. If a case is sanctioned, the needs of the child with poor attendance are removed from the grant. The actual size of the grant reduction resulting from a Learnfare sanction depends on the composition of the cash assistance case; however, it averages about $60 per month. Some DSS staff expressed skepticism that this small grant reduction would have a substantial impact on the school attendance of many children receiving cash assistance.

Most sanctions are imposed because parents fail to respond to the initial notice of a truancy problem. For example, the three caseworkers interviewed for the study, whose combined caseloads contained about 200 children in Learnfare, reported that, among them, they had imposed four Learnfare sanctions during the first 18 months of the policy. In all four sanction cases, the parents had failed to respond to the caseworkers' attempts to contact them concerning the report that their child was truant. Similarly, state-level data indicate that, during the first six months of the policy, 75 percent of Learnfare sanctions were imposed because the parent or guardian failed to respond to the initial notice that the child had been reported as truant. The remaining 25 percent were sanctioned for failing to comply with the attendance plan developed by their caseworker to address a child's truancy problem.

Learnfare sanctions are imposed infrequently. Based on figures provided by DSS, less than one percent of the more than 100,000 school-age children on cash assistance in Virginia received a sanction during the 1995-1996 school year. A major reason for the low overall rate of Learnfare sanction is the fact that most Learnfare children are in elementary school and, thus, are at an age when chronic absenteeism is rarely a problem. Presumably, the Learnfare sanction rate among teenagers is substantially higher than the overall sanction rate; however, sanction rates for teenagers were not readily available from the state.(3)

The state did, however, provide Learnfare sanction data specific to minor parents. These data indicate that minor parents are sanctioned much more frequently than other Learnfare cases. Among minor parents who received cash assistance in Virginia during the first quarter of 1996, 11 percent received a sanction during the 12-month period January to December 1996 (Table D.2).(4)

TABLE D.2

LEARNFARE SANCTIONS FOR MINOR PARENTS RECEIVING CASH ASSISTANCE IN THE FIRST QUARTER OF 1996 (Percentage)

  Minor Parents Who Are:  
  Less than 16 Years Olda 16 Years Olda 17 Years Olda All Minor Parents
Received Learnfare Sanction Within:
3 months 3 3 3 3
6 months 6 10 8 8
9 months 7 11 9 9
12 months 7 15 11 11
15 months 8 18 12 13
Sample Size 98 166 339 603

Source: Virginia Department of Social Services automated data.

Note: The sample represents all minor parents who received cash assistance in Virginia during January, February, or March 1996 and who were younger than 18 on July 1, 1996.

a Age as of July 1, 1996.

One important, possible explanation for the low overall sanction rate is the "cooperation" exemption from Learnfare sanctioning. When the parent cooperates with the local DSS agency in trying to return a truant child to school, the case can be exempt from sanctioning. Localities have wide flexibility in deciding what constitutes cooperation with the welfare office. This flexibility in interpreting "cooperation" may explain, at least in part, why some local agencies rarely imposed Learnfare sanctions during the first year of the requirement. For example, during the 1995-1996 school year, three of the largest local DSS agencies had Learnfare sanction rates of less than 0.2 percent, while other large agencies sanctioned Learnfare cases at 7 to 10 times that rate. One large agency, serving more than 2,000 Learnfare students, imposed no sanctions during the first year the policy was in effect.

Another important reason why Learnfare sanction rates are low may be that Virginia does not encourage frequent use of sanctions by local DSS agencies. For example, a passage from a DSS report from February 1996 reads:

As written, the [Learnfare] requirement is a preventative measure, with penalties instituted only as a last resort when there is noncooperation in working toward achieving compliance with school attendance laws. As long as the family follows the plan developed by the local department of social services and the parent or other caretaker/relative, the child remains eligible for AFDC benefits during the intervention period (DSS 1996).

The number of Learnfare sanctions has increased somewhat during the second year of the policy. According to DSS figures, between July 1995 and December 1995, 218 school-age minors were sanctioned for failure to attend school. During the same six-month period in 1996, 305 school-age minors were sanctioned, a 40 percent increase. Moreover, the cash assistance caseload in Virginia fell over this period by about 15 percent (see Table D.1). These trends suggest that Learnfare sanction rates may have increased by as much as two-thirds from the first to the second year of the policy. However, even with the increase in the sanction rate, the proportion of school-age minors on cash assistance who received a sanction during the 1996-1997 school year most likely remained quite low, probably between one and two percent.(5)

There are several possible explanations for an increase in the Learnfare sanction rate over this period. For example, a lenient attendance standard was in place during the 1995-1996 school year. Sanction rates may have risen, in part, because DSS imposed a stricter standard, beginning with the 1996-1997 school year. In addition, during the first year of the policy, local agencies were still working out systems of getting attendance information from school districts. As these systems improved, sanction rates may have increased.

5. Barriers to Compliance with Learnfare

Staff members in the local DSS agency visited for the study reported several reasons that some school-age minors fail to comply with the Learnfare attendance requirement. For example, one staff member said that some teenagers simply do not want to go to school. Another suggested that once students are doing poorly academically, they no longer want to attend school. Other staff members thought that teenagers who have been out of school for some time had a hard time returning.

Staff in the local DSS agency visited for the study believe that lack of child care funding poses no barrier to school attendance for minor parents receiving cash assistance. According to these staff members, adequate child care funding is available for young parents receiving cash assistance who want to attend school. Similarly, local staff reported that access to providers is not a major problem, because young parents typically prefer using relatives for day care. DSS is very flexible concerning the use of relatives for child care. The agency will pay for a relative to provide care and does not require that the relative be certified by the state to be reimbursed. However, some local staff members reported that the extremely limited child care available in the schools in the area may be a barrier to school attendance for some young mothers who prefer this type of care. Only one small school in the area (a special school for new mothers, with a substantial waiting list) offers on-site child care.

Local DSS staff from this agency reported that very few special schools or education programs are available in the area that are specifically designed for teenage parents. Some staff suggested that the lack of special education programs for young mothers may be a significant barrier to school attendance for some teenage parents. Others believed that this was not a major obstacle to school attendance, because many minor parents continue to attend regular high schools.

D. IMPLEMENTATION OF THE LIVING ARRANGEMENT REQUIREMENT

1. The Planning Phase

According to state DSS officials, the minor parent living arrangement requirement involved, for two reasons, much less planning and training than did the Learnfare attendance requirement. First, unlike Learnfare, the living arrangement requirement did not involve coordinating with other state and local agencies. Second, and more important, the living arrangement policy affects far fewer cash assistance cases than does the attendance requirement. DSS estimates that fewer than 500 minor parents receive cash assistance statewide. Moreover, under the living arrangement policy, only minor parents who head their own cash assistance cases must have their living arrangements regularly monitored. In January 1997, only 116 minor parents headed their own cash assistance cases statewide, which represents only 0.2 percent of all cash assistance cases (Table D.1). In contrast, during the first year Learnfare was in effect, more than 100,000 school-age children who received cash assistance in Virginia were subject to Learnfare and its monthly monitoring of attendance.

According to state DSS officials, during the planning phase for the living arrangement requirement, staff members from local DSS agencies expressed two concerns. First, some welfare caseworkers felt they did not have adequate training to make determinations concerning the appropriateness of a minor parent's living arrangement. It is up to individual caseworkers to determine whether compliance with the living arrangement requirement threatens the physical or emotional well-being of the minor parent and whether an unrelated adult with whom the minor is living can serve as an appropriate guardian. State officials report that DSS addressed this concern by giving local agencies flexibility in determining the appropriateness of living arrangements and by allowing them to involve social workers in the process.(6)

Second, some local DSS agencies expressed concern about the fact that the state had provided no funding for group homes for minor parents when imposing the living arrangement requirement. These agencies worried that a substantial number of minor parents would be unable to live with their parents and would have to be housed at agency expense. However, according to state-level DSS officials, because such flexibility exists in acceptable living arrangements for minor parents receiving cash assistance, alternative housing is rarely needed. Therefore, in the view of state staff, this local concern turned out to be unfounded. Moreover, the state welfare reform law requires only that local DSS agencies assist minor parents who are unable to live with an adult guardian in finding alternative adult-supervised housing; it does not require local agencies to pay for this housing.

2. Elimination of the Priority Ranking of Living Arrangements

When DSS wrote the original regulations for the living arrangement requirement during summer 1995, the agency imposed a priority ranking of the living arrangements of minor parents. DSS's ranking, from most to least desirable, was (1) with a parent, (2) with a legal guardian, (3) with another adult relative, and (4) with an unrelated adult. Under the original rules, unmarried minor parents were required to live in the highest-ranked arrangement possible. Therefore, a minor parent living with her grandmother was required to move back in with her mother or father unless there were strong reasons to suspect that the minor parent would be at risk of physical or emotional abuse. If a minor parent refused to move back in with her parents, her cash assistance case was closed, even if she was living with another adult relative.

According to state-level DSS staff, local agencies found this priority ranking difficult to enforce. Moreover, they considered it bad policy to force minor parents out of stable living situations with an adult relative to return them to their parent's home. After hearing these local concerns, state DSS officials decided that they had, as one staff member put it, "gone beyond the law" in imposing the strict priority ranking of living arrangements, since the original state legislation creating the requirement specified no such ranking.

For these reasons, DSS eliminated the priority ranking in July 1996. Under current DSS policy, a minor parent must live with either her parent or an adult 21 or more years old standing in loco parentis. Welfare caseworkers are expected to assess whether the adult with whom the minor is living can serve in such a capacity. State-level DSS policy explicitly eliminates only adult boyfriends as allowable guardians, since, according to state-level staff, their relationship toward a minor would clearly not be a parental one.

3. Monitoring Living Arrangements

At the time of application for cash assistance, and every six months at recertification, minor parents who head their own cases must provide a lease, landlord statement, or some other form of third-party verification of where they live and who lives with them. This verification is also required when the minor parent reports a change of address. According to staff in the local DSS agency visited for the study, when a minor parent applies for cash assistance, intake workers first consult local school district records to try to verify a minor parent's address and the name of her guardian. Local welfare staff are able to access this information from the welfare office through a direct link to the district's computer system. For minor parents living in public housing, intake workers can also verify living arrangements by using the local welfare agency's computer data link to local housing authority records.

4. Enforcement of the Living Arrangement Requirement

Under state law, if a minor parent receiving cash assistance does not comply with the living arrangement requirement, her cash assistance case must be closed. Similarly, if a minor parent applying for assistance does not comply with the requirement, her application for assistance must be denied. DSS data indicate that, during the first 18 months under the new policy, 51 minor parents in Virginia had their cash assistance cases closed, and 71 had their applications denied because of failure to comply with the living arrangement requirement (Table D.3).

The rates of case closings and application denials have slowed over time. During the first six months of the living arrangement requirement, DSS closed minor parent cash assistance cases and denied minor parent applications for violation of the policy at the rate of five or six a month. A year later, these rates had slowed to one or two a month (Table D.3). There are several possible explanations for this substantial decline. First, the more flexible living arrangement policy imposed

TABLE D.3

CASH ASSISTANCE CASE CLOSINGS AND APPLICATION DENIALS FOR VIOLATION OF THE MINOR PARENT LIVING ARRANGEMENT REQUIREMENT JULY 1995 THROUGH DECEMBER 1996

  July 1995 Through December 1995 January 1996 Through June 1996 July 1996 Through December 1996 July 1995 Through December 1996
Number of Minor Parents Whose Cash Assistance Cases Have Been Closed for Violation of the Residency Requirement 33 9 9 51
Number of Minor Parents Whose Cash Assistance Applications Have Been Denied for Violation of the Residency Requirement 33 30 8 71

Source: Virginia Department of Social Services automated data.

in July 1996 (which eliminated the priority ranking of living arrangements) may have resulted in fewer case closings and application denials during the later period. Second, application denials may have declined because, as word spread of the new requirement, fewer minor parents who preferred to live independently applied for cash assistance. Third, fewer cash assistance cases may have been closed in the later period because, by that time, most minor parents who preferred to live independently had already had their cases closed or their applications denied, or had chosen not to apply for assistance. Fourth, compliance with the policy may have increased over time as minor parents became more convinced that cases would actually be closed and applications denied for violation of the living arrangement requirement.

5. Exemptions from the Living Arrangement Requirement

Under state law, a minor parent receiving cash assistance is exempt from the requirement that she live with a parent or other responsible adult when:

  • She is married.
  • She has no living parent or adult guardian whose whereabouts are known.
  • The local DSS agency determines that if she lives with her parent or guardian, her or her child's physical or emotional health or safety would be jeopardized.

According to DSS data, exemptions from the living arrangement requirement are relatively rare. In January 1997, according to data from DSS's computer tracking system for all cash assistance cases, 17 minor parents on cash assistance lived independently statewide (Table D.4). This number represents less than four percent of minor parents receiving cash assistance in the state.

TABLE D.4

LIVING ARRANGEMENTS OF MINOR PARENTS RECEIVING CASH ASSISTANCE
IN VIRGINIA IN JANUARY 1997

  Percentage Number
Living    
With a parent or another adult relative 85.9 402
With a legal guardian 7.3 34
With an unrelated adult 2.8 13
In a group home 0.4 2
Independently 3.6 17
Total 100.0 468

Source: Virginia Department of Social Services automated data.

Local DSS agencies are required by state law to assist minor parents who are unable to live with a parent or other responsible adult to locate alternative adult-supervised housing. However, according to state DSS officials, minor parents on cash assistance in Virginia rarely require alternative housing. According to DSS data, in January 1997, only two minor parents on cash assistance statewide lived in group homes (Table D.4). It is unclear whether these data support DSS's assertion that alternative housing is rarely needed. The extremely small number of minor parents in group homes may reflect the limited supply of these facilities in the state, as well as the limited demand.

6. Lessons Learned During Implementation of the Living Arrangement Requirement

When asked for advice they had for other states, DSS officials recommended that states use a broad, flexible list of acceptable living arrangements for minor parents when imposing a living arrangement requirement. According to DSS officials, they recommended this strategy because it allows greater flexibility for local agencies but still meets the goal of a stable and supportive living arrangement for minor parents. Furthermore, state staff indicated, this flexibility helps avoid the problems and opposition DSS encountered during the first year of the living arrangement policy, when they required minor parents to live with a parent if at all possible. Moreover, it avoids the substantial costs of placing large numbers of minor parents in group homes.

Rather than place substantial numbers of minor parents in group homes at DSS's expense, the agency plans to have caseworkers make an extra effort to find an adult guardian for minor parents unable to live with a parent. To ensure that such an adult is available, DSS has implemented a broad definition of the type of adult considered an appropriate guardian. Any adult who is at least 21 years old and considered capable by the local DSS agency of serving in loco parentis can serve as a guardian.

1. Agency officials reported that, based on previous DSS reviews of cases identified in this manner, this method was quite accurate in identifying actual minor parents.

2. In spite of the large number of students reported by the school district as truant each month, relatively few receive a sanction. For example, during February 1997, only four Learnfare sanctions were imposed by this large local agency.

3. Among teenagers in Wisconsin's Learnfare program, two percent were sanctioned in their first semester in the program (State of Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau 1995).

4. This analysis is restricted to minor parents who were younger than 18 on July 1, 1996. All minor parents included were therefore subject to the Learnfare attendance requirement for at least six months.

5. Exact figures for the 1996-1997 school year were not available at the time this study was conducted.

6. Officials at the large local DSS agency visited for the study reported that, because they so rarely encountered minor parents who wanted to live independently, they did not consider lack of training a major issue.