The case is every foster family’s nightmare. A troubled 12-year-old boy is dropped off by the Department of Children and Families on an emergency basis for “a few days,” the foster family, identified by the pseudonym Rhea in court papers, is told. Four months later, the boy is still there and the family’s 5-year-old daughter describes to her father her sexual assault by the boy.
At a time when the state is struggling mightily to expand its network of foster parents, how the department handles this case — both as a legal matter and an ethical one — will determine the future of foster care in this state.
This is about doing the right thing — not just for one family but for the more than 2,000 families who each year take a young stranger into their homes. They need to know two things: that DCF will provide as much accurate information as it can about those foster children; and that, if the department fails, it will own up to that failure and not attempt to hide behind the ancient legal doctrine of sovereign immunity.
And make no mistake, this case has implications well beyond DCF — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Rhea case dates back to May 2013, when the family, which according to court papers had already “taken in hundreds of foster children,” agreed “reluctantly” to take in the boy, who had nowhere else to go.
The family alleges that the agency knew the boy they were placing “had a history as both a victim and a perpetrator of sexual abuse but did not disclose that information.” The foster mother made repeated requests for information and twice asked to end the placement over “behavioral problems.” DCF not only continued the placement through the summer but also enrolled the boy in the public school system in the same town, probably as part of an effort to continue the placement.
A recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court found that if indeed the foster parents’ allegations are proven, “the department violated its contractual commitment by failing to provide the parents with information known to it, and plainly material to the parents’ evaluation of whether to accept placement of the foster child in their home.”
That written agreement, Chief Justice Mark Green noted in his opinion, set out in “considerable detail” the responsibilities of the foster parents and the department, including a provision to provide the family with “sufficient information” so a family can “knowledgeably determine whether or not to accept the child.”
It was the violation of that agreement and “the parents’ reliance on the department’s assurances” that allows the suit against DCF to go forward — notwithstanding the doctrine of “sovereign immunity” which exempts state agencies from some but not all private lawsuits.
That original violation did not happen on the watch of the Baker administration. That is all the more reason why this administration should negotiate a reasonable settlement with this family and drop any possible appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court on sovereign immunity grounds.
“We disagree with the conclusion of the Appeals Court and are working with the attorney general’s office on next steps,” a spokesperson for the Office of Health and Human Services said. “This has pretty broad implications for the entire government.”
The state does indeed have countless contracts with providers and with caretakers throughout HHS, she noted. All the more reason to settle this in a manner that will provide a level of transparency and honesty for those the state depends on to care for its most vulnerable citizens.
Beyond that, DCF needs to own up to the fact that it bears a responsibility to all current and would-be foster families and possible adoptive families to provide the kind of information — including health and education records — to ensure adequate and knowledgeable care. Instead of signaling a course correction, the state’s digging in to fight this case will give families second thoughts about trusting the agency in the future.