Unlike most states challenged by the child-welfare watchdog group Children’s Rights, Massachusetts has refused to settle a lawsuit alleging that the state has failed to meet its legal duty to some 8,000 foster children entrusted to its care. It was an unusual decision on the part of the Patrick administration to fight this battle in US District Court. But on balance, it was the right one.
There are few jobs in state government more important than finding safe homes and compassionate foster parents — usually on a temporary basis — for children who are abused or abandoned by their own families. Children’s Rights alleges that Massachusetts has bungled the job so badly that the state ranks ninth-worst among 52 jurisdictions in terms of the rate of maltreatment of children in foster care. Angelo McLain, the state commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, disputes many of the group’s criticisms and says the agency is eager to tell its side of the story to a federal judge.
Often, it seems that the state Department of Children and Families can do no right. Its “kin first’’ policy is blamed for failing to remove children in timely fashion from abusive families. And when it does act, the state is criticized for allowing children to languish in foster homes or exposing them to further harm. Many of the problems of this agency are intrinsic to the tough cases that cross its desk. It deserves its day in court.
But some of the charges by the Children’s Rights group speak to operational failures. They include: the failure of some child welfare workers to make monthly visits to children as required by state policy, the failure to conduct annual reassessments or license renewals at more than 25 percent of foster homes, and a lack of an adequate contract monitoring system to supervise the performance of child placement agencies. The state must be prepared with remedies for these and other problems if it hopes to avoid a long period of federal oversight.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, says that her group puts no preconditions on settlement talks. But commissioner McLain says it is only necessary to look at the roughly dozen such agreements involving Children’s Rights to find a pattern of lengthy monitoring and millions of public dollars paid to the advocacy group for its legal fees, travel expenses, and expert testimony. A federal magistrate in Tulsa, for example, recently recommended that Oklahoma pay Children’s Rights $7 million as part of the settlement agreement to overhaul that state’s foster care system. And such money, said McLean, is better spent on child protection services.
McLean also fears that entering into a settlement would create a “culture of compliance’’ that elevates legal adherence over flexible management decisions needed in the dynamic field of child protection. The agency, he said, prefers to focus on a “culture of improvement’’ as evidenced by higher placement rates for foster children, more manageable caseloads for social workers, and more generous payments to foster families.
The Department of Children and Families is standing up and saying that it doesn’t need the pressure of a court order or settlement agreement to protect foster children. Texas and Rhode Island — also subject to suits by Children’s Rights — are on the verge of doing the same. It’s a principled position. But it is one that demands an absolute commitment to providing the best possible care for children who find themselves in the worst possible circumstances.