Correction: A previous version of this article did not clarify Head Start grant recipients were the focus of the investigation. We have updated our story to reflect this change.
Children served by more than a quarter of Head Start grant recipients were found by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families to have been abused, left unsupervised, or released to an unauthorized person between October 2015 and May 2020. An investigation released Wednesday by the OIG documented at least 1,029 incidents across 27% of Head Start grantees.
The most frequent type of incident, with 358 total, involved children being left alone on the grounds of a Head Start facility, such as in a classroom, in a bathroom or on a playground. OIG also found 95 examples of children left alone outside a facility, such as in a parking lot or on a nearby street, and 80 incidents where children were left alone on a bus.
In one incident detailed in the report, a physician found evidence of frostbite on a child's foot after a contracted bus driver left the child "unattended on the bus for an undetermined period of time during very cold weather," according to the OIG’s analysis of federal Head Start monitoring reports.
The OIG identified 454 separate incidents of abuse, with a single incident sometimes including both verbal and physical abuse. In one example, a Head Start director saw a teacher dragging the child across the floor on three separate occasions, roughly pushing him into a cubby, and preventing him from getting out.
Head Start serves mostly low-income families, and grant recipients provide services to more than 1 million children nationwide every year, according to the Office of Head Start. The program received more than $10 billion in federal appropriations per fiscal year, until it increased in 2022 to just over $11 billion.
"Children are among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society and must be protected from harm," said a spokesperson for HHS OIG. "Accurate information about incidents that threaten children’s safety is critical for effective oversight."
Part of the problem is that Administration for Children and Families is "not aware of all incidents in which children in the care of a Head Start center are abused, left unsupervised, or released to an unauthorized person, impeding its efforts to protect children’s safety," the report found.
Out of recipients with one or more adverse findings from ACF in those three categories, 24% failed to promptly report these incidents. "I was surprised by the extent to which ACF lacked this important information," said Jennifer Hutnich, social science research analyst for the Office of Evaluations and Inspections at the Office of Inspector General at HHS.
For example, OIG identified 130 additional incidents in Head Start centers in two states alone that were not reported to ACF.
A separate data brief issued by ACF shows that between 2016 and 2020 — almost the same time period as the OIG report — there were an average of 74 citations of inappropriate supervision, 47 citations of violations of standard of conduct which included instances of child abuse, and 10 citations of inappropriate release.
"Incidents like those detailed in the OIG report are rare in Head Start," said the National Head Start Association in a statement on the findings. "However, each one must be taken seriously." NHSA called the investigation "an important and routine part of government oversight."
However, Hutnich said while the investigation was not triggered by a specific incident, her agency has not previously reported on child abuse, lack of supervision, and unauthorized release in Head Start centers.
The association, which includes Head Start program directors, said it supported the OIG recommendations to train staff and remedy issues like underreporting. The ACF said it accepted all of OIG's recommendations and places "the utmost priority on child health and safety."
"All child safety incidents are unacceptable," said January Contreras, assistant secretary for ACF. Hutnich added that the Office of Inspector General will monitor the agency’s progress in following through on its recommendations.