It will take more than hand wringing, more than rhetoric, and more than Olga Roche’s head on a political platter to make things better for children who fall under state protection in Massachusetts.
It will take more taxpayer money.
Last November, federal Judge William Young dismissed a class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Children and Families on what basically amounted to technical legal grounds. Yet even as he shot down the suit, Young acknowledged the state’s child welfare agency places children in inappropriate foster homes, fails to provide adequate educational and health services for families under its protection, and poorly manages caseloads and employee training.
Why? As Young bluntly explained in the final paragraphs of his 84-page opinion, “the flaws noted herein are more about budgetary shortfalls than management myopia. We are all complicit in this financial failure. When next you bemoan your tax burden, remember that, at that moment, somewhere in Massachusetts, there is a youngster who has just been taken from her parents’ home. She is confused, inexpressibly lonely, homesick, and desperately afraid. Because of Massachusetts’ penury, her future is murkier than in most places in America. Do you care?”
It all depends on the definition of “care.” Pushed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, Governor Deval Patrick finally conceded that Roche, the state’s child welfare commissioner, had to go. With three children now dead, a political tipping point was reached. But good luck to her successor, who now must lead an overworked, understaffed, and demoralized agency, up against the same challenges faced by Roche.
The real issue at DCF is its shrinking bottom line. Over the course of Patrick’s two terms in office, state spending on child welfare programs decreased by 12 percent, according to numbers provided by Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
“Since the state cut taxes by over $3 billion between 1998 and 2002, we have seen deep cuts across the state budget,” said Berger. “While some funding was restored during the relatively good economic times in the mid-2000s, the long-term effects of tax cuts combined with the Great Recession led to more deep cuts over the past six years. It is likely that the only sustainable way to restore funding for DCF – and for the related supports that can help low income families overcome obstacles to success, like lack of child care for working families — is to reform our tax system to raise additional revenue in progressive ways.”
The case of Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg, who was 4 when he disappeared last fall, put a spotlight on DCF and triggered an increase in proposed child welfare spending for the upcoming fiscal year. Since the little boy’s body was found alongside a roadside on April 18, two more children under state care have died: 4-month-old Aliana Lavigne of Grafton and 16-day-old Bailey Irish of Fitchburg. As these deaths came to light, the political heat intensified, and Patrick accepted Roche’s resignation.
For now, the politicians are promising to follow up with more support and resources.
Whether they do depends on the public’s interest over time. Do we care enough to put our collective wallets behind our momentary outrage?