Omnibus DCF bill still in the works
Rep. Finn seeks to expand authority of Child Advocate
WITH LESS THAN two months left to the legislative session, the House’s lead lawmaker on child welfare policy is continuing work on an omnibus bill that he says would make the Office of the Child Advocate more independent, improve educational oversight at the Department of Children and Families, and establish rights for foster parents.
State Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat who chairs the Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, said the bill he is working on does not address all the problems with the current system, but reflects some first steps, after what he admits was a “challenging” year-and-a-half since he became chairman trying to get up to speed on child welfare. “This bill only really scratches the surface on some of the work that still needs to be done,” Finn said.
Yet, as is often the case with thorny child welfare issues, the devil is in the details. An hour-long hearing before the Legislature’s Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday made clear that even these first steps may need revisions if they are to pass before the end of formal sessions in July.
Retired Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman, interim director of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a coalition of child welfare advocates, said Massachusetts has a “history of reacting to tragic cases with sometimes ineffective policy changes.” Blitzman said he and the legislative committee share the same concerns about improving the child welfare system. But he raised questions in his testimony about “how the bill might or might not achieve its goals.”
Finn said his 28-page bill addresses some of the problems raised by these and other cases.
One major part of the bill is what Finn described as making sure the Office of the Child Advocate remains independent from the Department of Children and Families by “minimizing the impact the executive branch can have on the office that audits these agencies.”
“You cannot be an advocate for children while you are enmeshed in the very agencies that are also compelled to provide services to the children,” said Rep. Denise Garlick, a Needham Democrat who has been a House leader on foster care policy.
For example, the bill would require the child advocate to notify the governor, auditor, attorney general, House speaker, and Senate president of its investigations and results before notifying the executive branch agency that is the subject of the investigation. The bill would replace the current child advocate advisory council, comprised mostly of executive branch employees, with a reporting structure that requires the child advocate to meet annually with the governor, House speaker, Senate president, attorney general, auditor, and chief justice of the juvenile court.
The bill would also expand the authority of the Office of the Child Advocate. It would authorize the child advocate to intervene in court cases involving children in DCF custody. It would make the child advocate responsible for reviewing child fatalities. It directs the child advocate to investigate racial disproportionality in child welfare.
Blitzman worried that letting the child advocate intervene in court cases could create constitutional and legal issues, since there are laws governing how cases should proceed.
Susan Elsen, the child welfare advocate for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, worried that it is DCF’s job to represent children in court cases, and giving the child advocate a role would create a conflict between the two agencies. “If DCF isn’t doing it well enough, the Commonwealth’s policy needs to squarely address that,” Elsen said.
The bill would also require the office of the child advocate to create new training for mandated reporters, adults like teachers who are required to report suspected child abuse and neglect. The role of mandated reporting has come under scrutiny in recent years, with a growing recognition that while mandated reporting is vital to catching abuse, the process is rife with bias and leads to Black and Latino children disproportionately getting caught up in the system, often because of poverty.
Finn’s bill says the training would address over-reporting, including “how to address concerns with families and children when those concerns do not rise to the level of requiring a maltreatment report and how to understand the difference between poverty and neglect.”
The bill would create a “bill of rights” for foster parents, an idea that has been bandied about for years to improve communication between DCF and foster families. Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat and long-time champion of the policy, said a bill of rights would ensure foster parents get basic information about their child and have the necessary training and resources, while helping address what foster parents have described as an “atmosphere of retaliation” from DCF.
But Farley-Bouvier said the bill is still missing a consistent standard for what decisions foster parents are allowed to make themselves. For example, she said, foster children c urrently under the auspices of different DCF offices may have different rules regarding whether a foster parent can take them to a public pool.
The bill consolidates the myriad reporting requirements DCF must comply with, while requiring DCF to make public additional information related to demographics, racial disproportionality, complaints filed against the agency, educational outcomes, and more.The bill also creates new structures to improve the education of children in care, including the creation of “education coordinators” in each DCF office to ensure children under DCF supervision are succeeding in school. Garlick said this is important because, since 2019, the four-year high school graduation rate among DCF-involved children dropped from an already-low 55.6 percent to 50.6 percent.
Several advocates suggested that any policy shift must do a better job of incorporating the voices of families and children who have interacted with DCF. “I’m concerned about the exclusion of diverse individuals with lived experience,” Blitzman said. “Excluding them from the decision-making table is a mistake.”