Senate will seek public input
LOOKING TO ADDRESS longstanding concerns about the state’s child welfare system, the Massachusetts House on Monday passed a wide-ranging bill to improve operations at the Department of Children and Families, while also requiring better public reporting from the state agency.
This is the second time lawmakers have tried to pass the bill, and key lawmakers say they hope it will succeed this time, because many of the provisions are now agreed on by both the House and the Senate.
“This bill you’re looking at is a reflection of the broad areas on which there was agreement,” said Rep. Denise Garlick, a Needham Democrat, who was the House leader in crafting the first version of the bill last session.
However, it remains an open question what the state Senate will take up and when.
The House bill, H.87, passed in a lightly attended informal session on a voice vote with no debate. The bill was the product of extensive work on the topic last year, but the latest version did not have a public hearing during the current legislative session, which started in January.
On the Senate side, however, Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat who led the Senate’s work on a similar bill last session and now chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said she anticipates the bill will go through the committee process, which would include accepting public testimony.
Lovely said past bills have involved developing “consensus language” based on discussions with interested groups. “The Senate has always prioritized the health and safety of children, and so we are looking forward to engaging once again in the effort to ensure that all children under DCF care get the attention and resources that they need,” Lovely said in a statement. “I look forward to working with legislators and advocates to accomplish this goal with expediency. But we must engage in an open process through which experts, family members, and the public can weigh in on this important issue.”
Lovely said the Senate “looks forward to proceeding in an appropriate and transparent fashion to protect children and families in Massachusetts.”
This is the second time in recent weeks – the first being on a bill extending municipal voting by mail by three months – that the House passed a bill quickly while the Senate pledged to accept public input.
The House first voted on a similar bill on DCF on July 9, 2020. The Senate passed its version of the bill July 31, but tacked on additional provisions related to children’s mental health, placing new requirements on insurers and hospital emergency departments related to caring for children facing mental health crises. A conference committee was never appointed. Instead, Garlick and Lovely tried to negotiate a final version, but they were not successful before the session ended in January.
The mental health provisions championed by the Senate were left out of the version considered by the House, which focuses exclusively on DCF. Lovely did not comment on whether the Senate would insist on including the mental health provisions again this time.
House leaders said they were acting quickly because of the urgency of protecting vulnerable children. Last Thursday, Speaker Ron Mariano along with Garlick, Ways and Means chair Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat, and the House chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat, released a joint statement pledging “swift action” on the bill.
“With the state’s troubling drop in the filing of 51As over the last year, it is clear that more children and families are at-risk,” the House leaders said, using a term that refers to reports of child abuse and neglect. “Therefore, the House will immediately bring H87 to the floor in an effort to address those gaps where the system has failed our children and families and to provide additional safeguards to avoid any preventable tragedies as a result of this pandemic.”
One main theme of the bill is to provide more transparency in the child welfare system, both for the public and for those involved with the system.
New reporting requirements would specify exactly what data needs to be included in various annual and quarterly reports issued by DCF. These include regular reports on children aging out of the system without a permanent family and what happens to them, on hearings that are conducted when DCF decisions are appealed, and on services provided through contracted agencies. DCF already reports information about demographics, case numbers, and outcomes in its annual reports, but this would codify exactly what DCF must report and make it easier for researchers to track trends. It would also require DCF to report additional internal information, like staffing trends and social worker caseloads.
One group that has long complained about the lack of transparency at DCF is foster parents, who say they are often not given complete information from the agency about the children they are fostering and about important meetings, court dates, or even when a child is being taken from their home. The bill would establish a “foster parents’ bill of rights,” which establishes and lays out clearly the rights foster parents have.
This includes requiring DCF to provide training to foster parents; to give foster parents basic information about their child; to notify foster parents about hearings, the complaints process, and available financial supports; and to let foster parents give information about the child to the child’s next foster or adoptive parent. It also prevents DCF from discriminating against foster parents on the basis of gender, race, nationality, religion, or another protected class. It requires DCF to create a 24-hour emergency hotline foster parents can call.
Other changes to DCF processes were made in response to complaints that lawmakers have heard about how the system functions, Garlick said. For example, currently, if a DCF social worker calls an anger management class to make sure a parent participated, the agency running the class can ignore that call. The bill would require private agencies that get state money to offer services to respond to DCF inquiries within five days.
The bill would require DCF to notify a child’s attorney if a child is moved to a new placement, something that does not always happen today.
The bill would create an internal review process involving a DCF manager before a child is reunified with their family. It would also require DCF to improve its processes for when a child’s case is moved from one DCF office to another, to avoid important information getting lost in the transfer.
The bill also includes a section requiring DCF to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the child welfare system, by issuing monthly reports about the number of abuse and neglect reports that are filed, and by reporting on the impact virtual and video technology has had on DCF services.
The bill does not include a provision that has been championed by some advocates for children to create an independent office to review foster care placements. These reviews currently are conducted internally by DCF, but advocates say an independent review office could lead to better outcomes by providing a needed second set of eyes on every case.
Since 2014-2015, after a spate of high-profile cases involving deaths of children under DCF supervision, state policymakers have made improving DCF a priority, with additional funding, staff, training, and technology. But Garlick said, “Despite those efforts, there are still systemic issues in DCF, and what we saw with those systemic issues were illuminated and exacerbated by COVID-19.”