Family dysfunction doesn’t take a holiday — even during a pandemic, perhaps especially during a pandemic.
And so the vulnerable children who depend on the state to protect them, the foster families who give them shelter, and the agency charged with their care may have slipped off the front pages, but essential fixes to that system fortunately remain on the Legislature’s agenda.
There are real fears that the current dip in the reporting of child abuse or neglect is simply masking a problem that has essentially gone underground, with fewer teachers, child care workers, and others outside the home available to monitor students and young children.
Pre-pandemic, yet another report — the first annual report of the Department of Children and Families — documented lingering problems with the foster care system it oversees. It described a system where children bounce between foster homes at a rate nearly double the national standard, and fewer than 56 percent of high schoolers graduate in four years. Foster families have long complained about not being given the information — medical and psychological histories — they need to properly care for the children now under their roofs.
This month — six months after that disturbing report — lawmakers in the House and Senate have taken aim at the problem. Now they have a chance to make a real impact — that is, if the two branches can reconcile their differences.
Both bills aim for greater reporting by DCF on children in its care, the Baker administration generally not being a model of transparency. DCF would be required to issue annual and quarterly reports detailing the race, ethnicity, and primary language of the children who enter its system, and more information on case outcomes, including adoption rates and services to those who “age out” of the system at 18.
Also at the heart of both House and Senate version is a foster parents’ bill of rights to address those longstanding complaints by a dwindling number of foster parents to guarantee training, provide adequate information about the child in their care, set up a 24-hour hotline for the use of foster parents, and to keep them up to date on court dates or plans to remove a child from the home.
Both bills tackle the review process for child fatalities or near fatalities, proposing a new review board within the Office of the Child Advocate, rather than the Office of the Medical Examiner.
The Senate’s most important add-on is its approach to increasing access to mental health services for children under DCF care, eliminating any prior authorization requirements for treating children during acute mental health crises and requiring emergency departments to stabilize those patients and refer them for further treatment or inpatient admissions. It’s the Senate’s answer to the more widespread problem of children “stuck” in ER settings waiting for a psychiatric bed to open up. And while it won’t create those much-needed beds, it might allow already vulnerable children to get the help they need.
There are also some special pandemic-related reporting requirements for DCF and for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to try to determine whether children in DCF care have fallen through the education cracks during this time of remote learning.
DCF and the foster care system rarely get the attention they deserve unless yet another child dies tragically while in its care. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to get results. And yet behind each and every line of this legislation is an untold story — of a foster family begging for information on a child brought to them in the dead of night, of a foster mom waiting in the ER to hear the fate of a child in deep psychological trauma, of a child moved to his eighth placement in three years.
Lawmakers have heard those stories and listened. Reaching final agreement shouldn’t be difficult for those committed to this task. This bill simply must make it to the governor’s desk; young lives depend on it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.