House wants more transparency in foster care system

Bill would establish rights for foster parents

A BILL THAT the Massachusetts House is set to vote on Thursday would bring more transparency to the state’s troubled foster care system – but would not bring in the independent oversight that some advocates have been clamoring for.

“We think this is a step in the right direction around transparency and hopefully will lead to movement around accountability and oversight,” said June Ameen, policy director at Friends of Children, a Hadley-based group that advocates for children in the foster care system.

For years, the state has fielded complaints about the foster care system. Foster parents have said they are not given the information they need to care for foster children. Children are often shuttled between placements as there are not enough families available to take them for extended periods.

Massachusetts has some of the highest rates in the country of children aging out of the system without a permanent family. While the safety of children under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families garnered statewide attention in 2014, after a high-profile case of a boy who went missing and was found dead, reforms instituted as a result of that and similar cases have not addressed some of these less prominent problems.

The bill, the result of an effort spearheaded by House Ways and Means vice chair Denise Garlick, includes provisions related to data reporting, the creation of a foster parents’ bill of rights, some improvements to DCF processes, and an examination of the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable children.

The bill does not include the creation of an independent office to oversee foster care reviews, which are regular reviews of each child’s case mandated by federal law. A separate bill introduced in the Legislature would have put these reviews under the auspices of a new office, independent of DCF, in order to have an outside set of eyes overseeing the state agency and ensuring that children are moving on a path toward a permanent placement. But state officials opposed the change, and Child Advocate Maria Mossaides in late 2019 asked lawmakers to give her more time to work with DCF on reforming the foster care review process, before creating a new office.

Ameen said while the House bill would create more transparency at DCF, an independent review office would “really have teeth in changing outcomes for individual children and families.”

Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat who sponsored the foster care review bill, said under the House legislation, there will be “a lot of opening doors to better communication between foster families and DCF.”

But Vega said he will continue to push for the independent review office, which he compared to the push for transparency and outside oversight of police departments. “When you think about transparency of an organization like DCF, having some outside eyes on it is going to be important,” Vega said.

A big part of the 33-page bill is about data reporting. The bill would require DCF to produce annual and quarterly reports with information about caseloads – including child race, ethnicity, primary language, and, when available, gender identity and sexual orientation; case outcomes, such as adoption or family reunification, safety, high school graduation rates and delivery of medical services; and DCF staffing, budget and operations. Data about foster care reviews would also be included.

DCF would have to report how many children need childcare and how many are receiving it; how many times children move between placements; how many times children switch schools; and the number of children whose cases were reassigned to new offices or social workers.

Additional annual reports would be required on outcomes of children aging out of DCF care; on the fair hearing process, which lets someone appeal a DCF decision; on questions received by a state ombudsman; and on services provided by contracted agencies.

While some of this information is already included in regular reports produced by DCF, much of it is not. Prior legislation has left DCF with a patchwork of reporting requirements, which advocates say the agency has generally ignored. Advocates say the new data could provide greater insight into issues like racial disparities in how often children are removed from their homes, or how frequently children are bounced between homes.

The data portion of the bill was influenced by a data work group co-chaired by officials at DCF and the Office of the Child Advocate, which met for more than two years. Susan Elsen, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and a member of the group, called the bill “a very important step forward.” “It requires a lot of very important specific data about the demographics of the DCF caseload and about the metrics that we need to understand the outcomes that we’re achieving in our child welfare system,” Elsen said.

The bill would also create a Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights, which would require DCF to provide standardized training for foster parents; to give foster parents information about their foster children, including their health and education needs; to give foster parents information about financial support they are eligible for; to offer respite care; to maintain a 24-hour hotline for foster parents; and to notify foster parents of court dates, meetings, and plans to remove a child from the home.

Parents have long complained that DCF does not provide them with basic information, such as a child’s medical history or court dates. Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat who filed a separate bill to create a Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights that was incorporated into the legislation, said, “If we want our children to be well cared for, we need to make sure we protect the rights of people taking care of our children, and that’s our foster parents. It’s important foster parents are treated as a respected member of the professional team.”

Additionally, the bill would create a new team to review child fatalities and near-fatalities. It would require DCF to review its protocols for dealing with complex cases involving multiple social workers and offices. It would institute a managerial review before a decision is made to reunify children and families.

It would also require state officials to analyze the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on vulnerable children.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

DCF would have to report monthly on the number of reports of child abuse and neglect it receives. These reports have declined during the pandemic, raising concerns that child abuse is going unreported, since students are not being seen by teachers, caseworkers, or other adults outside their home.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would have to report on how many children, including how many with an open DCF case, did not participate in remote learning this spring, and would have to develop a plan to reengage various categories of vulnerable children.