The state child welfare system needs an overhaul, not more Band-Aids

Let's transform it to be a 'child and family well-being system'

THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES is broken, and as public defenders faced with the deficiencies of this system every day, we hope Gov. Maura Healey will make it a priority to fix it.

The cases of David Almond and Harmony Montgomery have shined a bright light on DCF, but thousands of other children are harmed by DCF’s intervention every year, with little public scrutiny.

Factoring in poverty, DCF removes children from their homes at one of the highest rates in the country. Regularly separating Massachusetts children from their families does not make them safer. After all, the vast majority of DCF cases are rooted in poverty, not physical or sexual abuse. Instead, by removing children from their homes, schools, and communities, DCF regularly causes severe harm to children. Some children may recover from that trauma, but many others never recover.

Racial disparities abound in the Massachusetts family regulation system. Black children are 2.4 times more likely to be placed in DCF’s custody than white children. Hispanic children are 2.5 times more likely. In addition, DCF is less likely to let Black and Hispanic children live with relatives than white children. It also moves Black and Hispanic children from one placement to another more frequently than it does white children.

DCF’s failure to be a stable parent affects foster children across the board. By one measure of placement stability, Massachusetts ranks 49th out of 50 states. This is horrible for Massachusetts children. Children who experience multiple foster care placements are at higher risk of behavioral difficulties, including difficulty developing meaningful attachments.

Children in foster care in Massachusetts also have poor educational outcomes. They have lower standardized test scores and higher absentee rates, are more likely to repeat grades, are more than three times more likely to be disciplined, and are significantly less likely to graduate from high school.

Most foster children ultimately return home, so it is extremely important to keep them connected with their families. But DCF typically allows children to spend only one hour per week with their parents – even when the child is an infant or toddler. Rather than tailoring plans for family time to meet the needs of individual children, DCF’s cookie-cutter approach flagrantly disregards most children’s needs.

The list goes on and on.

We need a fundamental transformation of DCF and the state’s child welfare/family regulation system, not quick fixes like assigning a guardian ad litem in every Juvenile Court case that DCF initiates. This Band-Aid would lengthen a child’s time in foster care, jeopardize their already inadequate access to physical and mental health care, restrict their right to an attorney, and their chance to be heard. And new policies adopted in recent years have resulted in no meaningful improvements in how DCF treats children and families.

Rather than look for simple solutions, we must recognize that the problems with the state’s family regulation system are complex, longstanding, and deeply rooted.

Countless individuals, including many state and private agency staff and foster parents, work diligently to support families and promote the well-being of children. Yet decades of reports, including data published by DCF itself, document that the state frequently fails to meet the needs of vulnerable children – even after significant increases in funding for DCF in recent years.

We need to reimagine the child welfare system and create what Jerry Milner, the former director of the federal Children’s Bureau, has called a child and family well-being system. That transformation must begin with true engagement with parents, alumni of the foster care system, and communities of color. We should also look to other states like Connecticut and New Jersey for lessons about how to keep more children safely at home.

What might a transformation of our child welfare system achieve? Among other things, it could: 1) eliminate the need for families to be involved with DCF by providing them more support; 2) strengthen families when DCF intervention is necessary so that children can be safely cared for by their families whenever possible; 3) consistently meet children’s needs when their families cannot safely care for them (with these first three changes all involving DCF and other state and private agencies); 4) end the disparities in how the system treats poor families and families of color; 5) promote accountability through more robust oversight of DCF; and 6) treat all with fairness and respect.

There are also steps to take in the short term. These include increasing funding for Family Resource Centers and providing other supports to struggling families; addressing racist restrictions that keep relatives from becoming foster parents; and protecting foster children’s right to stay in schools they’ve been attending. DCF’s leadership must also support its staff in engaging with families it serves.

Massachusetts’s billion-dollar child welfare systems are not safely keeping families together and not meeting children’s needs.

Meet the Author
With a budget surplus, a new Legislature, and a new governor, it’s time to reimagine how we can do so – and time to get to work, over the long haul, for our state’s children.

Michael Dsida is deputy chief counsel of the Children and Family Law Division at the Committee for Public Counsel Services.