Report says DCF needs to incorporate family input into policies
Law Reform Institute gives voice to concerns of parents, youth
EVA LIVES in Central Massachusetts with her four children, ages seven to 11. About a year after her youngest was born, she was in her mid-20s and struggling with postpartum depression. She was leaving an abusive marriage and relapsed in her drug use, despite having been in recovery since her first child was born.
“I was completely overwhelmed, and I needed more help than I was getting,” recalled Eva, who is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy.
The Department of Children and Families got involved and sent her a family coordinator once a week. But Eva needed therapy and outpatient services, and DCF was unable to help her navigate the system and get the help she needed. Therapist waiting lists were months long.
Ultimately, DCF took her children for 18 months, a traumatizing experience.
“To not support you or give you tools to become the parent you need to be to become more stable is a disservice to all the families and children that are in the system,” Eva said in an interview. “I know I’m not a terrible person or mom. I needed help.”
Eva’s story is included in a unique report being published by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which looks at the state’s child welfare system through the eyes of the families caught up in it. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 14 parents and youth and met three times with representatives of Family Matters First, a group of over 100 parents with DCF involvement. The interviews paint a highly critical portrait of the Department of Children and Families, the state agency tasked with looking out for children’s welfare.
The report points to what has always been the central conundrum of child protection work. The goal of a child protection agency like DCF is to keep children safe – and ideally, keep them safely in their homes. But the agency has the power to remove children from their parents’ custody, and it has often failed to provide the type of robust assistance necessary to stabilize struggling families. For families, DCF is known not as an agency that provides helpful resources but as one that takes children away.
“Families want service and help without DCF involvement,” said report author Susan Elsen, the child welfare advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
Elsen said the gap between the mission of DCF – to keep children safely at home with their families whenever possible – and how it is perceived by the families it serves shows the need to bring families into the agency’s policy and planning efforts. “We hope to put the voices of people with lived experience out in the public arena with respect to planning services to keep children safely with their families, to really show how useful and profound their insights are into what’s going to make services effective for keeping children safely with their families,” Elsen said.
A spokesperson for DCF declined to comment because the agency has not yet seen the report.
The most effective services provided through DCF were the most practical – a DCF worker who was available to drive a mother to appointments, or a “parent partner” who picked up a child from visits with a formerly abusive partner so the mother did not have to deal with her abuser. One mother who attended several DCF parenting groups said the one that was most helpful was one held in the evening with childcare and dinner. But those helpful services generally didn’t last long enough.
The report also makes clear that DCF workers need additional training in certain areas, like dealing with individuals with disabilities and substance use disorders and providing culturally competent services. For example, a DCF evaluation found that a woman with an intellectual disability needed to learn to care for her son’s medical needs through repetition, and she needed additional help with his care. The woman found a nurse assistant, but DCF refused to let the nurse assistant participate in trainings on how to care for the boy. DCF bombarded the mother with information in her first training session, rather than tailoring the session to the way the woman could learn.
The report wrote that DCF should do more to let individuals rely on their extended family and community networks, and to keep parents better informed about what they need to do to be reunified with their children.
DCF needs to do more to support biological families and help parents maintain their connections with their child in foster care, the report said. Currently, according to the report, parents often find their concerns about their children are ignored by DCF. For example, one grandmother who works in the mental health profession said she got no response from DCF regarding concerns that her young autistic grandson was placed in an inappropriate facility geared toward children with emotional disturbances.
MLRI timed the report to come out at a time when DCF is working on improving its preventative services. Congress in 2018 passed a law that provides more funding for services to keep children out of foster care, and Massachusetts just submitted its plan to become eligible for the federal money. DCF is also planning to procure new contracts with agencies that provide “family support and stabilization services,” which are services to keep at-risk children home with their families.
“Our key recommendations are first, to include families and youth with lived experience at the policymaking table in planning services to keep families safely together, and to do that right now as this unprecedented level of planning is taking place, and second, to provide community-based resources to families that don’t require DCF involvement,” Elsen said.
Several report recommendations relate to finding better ways to connect families with existing resources and developing more programs to provide peer support, access to substance use treatment, and concrete assistance to families before a child is taken and after a child is returned. The report recommends DCF do more to address the trauma children face in foster care, better engage extended family members, and improve staff training in areas like disability support.
In many ways, the report is a summary of many of the complaints raised by Family Matters, a group of DCF-involved families founded by Tatiana Rodriguez in 2021.In an interview, Rodriguez, a former foster child and a parent with DCF involvement, said one of the biggest problems with DCF is “they fail to provide the support and resources.” She said the agency does not offer resources like connections to housing, food, or substance use treatment, which could help a family stay intact. She said many families in Black and Latino communities cannot qualify to place children with relatives because of minor police interactions. “I feel like they place all these barriers to not keep children and families together,” Rodriguez said.
She said she hopes the report encourages DCF to include families in developing their polices. “They’re failing to speak to the experts,” Rodriguez said. “We know what we need. We are the experts when it comes to our lives.”