Baker proposal for guardians ad litem will only worsen child welfare system

Move would lead to unnecessary, traumatic separation of children from families

A SYSTEM THAT often harms the children it is sworn to protect requires fundamental reform – not tinkering. The $50 million expansion of the child-welfare bureaucracy proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker in response to the disappearance of 7-year-old Harmony Montgomery would not make children safer. Instead, it would leave unaddressed – or even worse, reinforce – some of the Department of Children and Families’ deepest flaws.

The governor proposes assigning every child in the system a guardian ad litem (GAL). GALs investigate and make recommendations to a judge based on their own views of what is in “the best interest of the child.” But GALs often do not reflect the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the families in care and protection proceedings and are likely to evaluate homes based on white middle-class norms. This will likely subject many more children to traumatic separation from the only families they know.

The problems don’t end there. Too often, children in DCF’s custody are bounced from placement to placement and must repeatedly adjust to new caregivers, other foster children, and schools. If all goes well, they may see their parents for an hour a week in some office; they will see their siblings, often placed in different homes, far less frequently. Many children are placed in homes in which a different language is spoken, pulling them even further away from their families, their culture, and their communities. These problems add up. Children raised in the foster system are at increased risk for school dropout, poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, physical and mental health problems, and incarceration.

The GAL proposal also ignores profound problems of racial injustice and economic inequality. Black, Latinx and Native American children are currently 2.4, 2.6 and 2.8 times, respectively, more likely than their white peers to be removed from their homes and placed with strangers in foster homes, group homes, and institutions. Put in more concrete terms for just one of those groups, Native American children, who were the victims of genocidal boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, remain at significant risk of being removed from their families, something that 17 percent of them will endure. Having GALs pronounce what they think is best for children will only exacerbate these significant racial and ethnic disparities.

Children of all backgrounds from low-income families are at high risk for removal because poverty is conflated with neglect. Is it in “the best interest of the child” to live with their family in an overcrowded, unheated apartment as opposed to a suburban foster home? A child is likely to want to stay with their family. Will a GAL, with no connection to the child’s community and minimal experience working with families in crisis, think the same? Instead of removing the risk, they will more likely support removing the child.

Imagine that $50 million slated for GALs went instead to housing, transportation and other resources necessary to raise a family. That funding, along with efforts to build partnerships with public and private entities to create a community-based framework that addresses poverty related stressors faced by families in a humane and culturally competent manner, would go much further in addressing the needs of children than further funneling them into a system that too often falls short. It also avoids this stark reality: while it is true that DCF can arrange some services for families, the department is too feared in many communities for adults to admit their needs. The worry is chilling and constant: What if the state takes my kids?

To truly offer care and protection to Massachusetts children, the system must be much more discerning and strategic. It must insert itself in fewer households and be prepared to offer comprehensive help to the most high-need families in the state. Removals should be rare. This would end the constant need to recruit more foster parents and free up DCF to offer excellent support to foster homes that remain.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Leon Smith

Executive director, Citizens for Juvenile Justice
While this criticizes DCF’s child welfare work, we understand that no state’s system serves families well. The model of child protection in the US must be reformed and reimagined in a meaningful way. That means bringing concerned parties to the table to develop meaningful solutions, with significant representation by those directly impacted and harmed by the system. If we are to find solutions that work for families and communities, diverse voices from those communities must be central to that process. Meanwhile, we must urgently address stressors that are challenging even to more resourced families: the lack of quality affordable childcare; the shortage of mental health clinicians; the rising cost of housing. Massachusetts families do not need more professionals to give them failing grades. They need help.

Michael Dsida is deputy chief counsel in the Children and Family Law Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Leon Smith is executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice.