The one thing lawmakers, advocates, and state officials can agree on is that no one wants to be back here again — probing the death of a child who deserved to be protected, who was supposed to be protected by a $1 billion system designed to do just that.
And yet to deal with the tragic death of 14-year-old David Almond last October, while still supposedly under the watch of the Department of Children and Families, is to have to wrestle with the thorniest of child welfare questions — family reunification. It is, after all, David Almond’s father and his father’s girlfriend who have been charged in connection with his death due to starvation and abuse. But it’s also a death blamed on “a multi-system failure,” according to the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, which spent five months investigating the case.
Perhaps David’s case is unique — as every child is unique.
But as state Representative Natalie M. Blais, a Sunderland Democrat, put it at Tuesday’s legislative oversight hearing on the case and its aftermath, “Until we address the systemic operational issues with management of the DCF system, I’m very concerned that we’ll be back here year after year.”
“It is impossible for anyone working in child welfare to say every child is safe,” Maria Mossaides, the state child advocate, told the panel. “It is impossible to say there will never be another tragedy.”
But putting good systems in place and helping staff involved make the best decisions they can is a good place to start, she added.
DCF deals with some 80,000 reports of abuse and neglect each year, down from over 100,000 in 2015 and 2016, DCF Commissioner Linda Spears told the committee. About half of those youngsters end up in DCF care.
Those children are also disproportionately Latinx and Black. “Although only 19 percent of children in Massachusetts are Latinx and 8.8 percent are Black, they comprise 31.9 percent and 14.3 percent of the foster care population respectively,” according to a friend of the court brief filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights in a case against DCF heard by the Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday.
The case, brought on behalf of the mother of a child in DCF custody by lawyers for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, pleads for a greater level of court involvement in the lives of those children.
“Children of color would particularly benefit from this increased judicial oversight because they are more likely to be removed from their homes in the first place and less likely to receive services that would allow for reunification,” the Lawyers for Civil Rights’ amicus brief argues.
How long those children stay “in the system,” and what happens to them along the way, is a continuing cause for concern. Even Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders had to admit that “Massachusetts continues to be an outlier in the amount of time to achieve permanency for children.” Permanency can mean either being adopted or reunited with a parent.
And here’s where the blame game begins.
“Delays in the Massachusetts court process is a key reason why Massachusetts underperforms in permanency compared to the national average,” Sudders testified.
The case of David Almond provided a ready example. The state filed a care and protection order Oct. 5, 2017. State law requires a final disposition within 15 months (with the possibility of a three-month extension under some circumstances). Federal law provides that if a child has been in foster care 15 of the last 22 months, the state must file a petition to terminate parental rights — again, unless certain conditions are met. David’s case was before the court for 33 months.
Sudders added that for the year ending June 30, 2020, “the median time from a child’s home removal to adoption was 37 months.”
Three years in the life of a vulnerable child.
Mossaides noted in her testimony that justice needs to be not merely swift, but more engaged.
“The Juvenile Court should play a more active role in analyzing the merits of a proposed reunification case, including the requirement that DCF link the family’s action plan to the clinical needs of the family,” Mossaides said. “Furthermore, the Court should more strictly ensure that the circumstances that led to DCF’s original decision to remove children from their home are resolved before allowing reunification to occur.”
But in the case of David Almond, the day after a Juvenile Court judge found his father unfit to parent the autistic child, DCF moved to begin reunification — a moment state Representative Michael J. Finn, cochair of the Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, called “the basic original sin” in the case.
“It’s completely inexplicable,” Sudders agreed.
It would be easy to take the wrong lessons from the Almond case too — that reuniting families is a bad thing. It isn’t, in most cases, especially in a child welfare system that has to confront growing evidence of racial and ethnic biases.
But reuniting families is part art, and yes, more recently, part science. DCF is now working with the national firm Evident Change to develop tools to assess children’s safety prior to reunification. Spears promised a revamped reunification policy by Sept. 1 that would include ongoing services to parents and children and require post-unification reviews.
The pandemic has provided an all too convenient excuse for DCF’s social workers, its management, and the courts to delay and to deflect, while young lives hang in the balance. Giving those thousands of children the care and attention they deserve must be their goal for our post-pandemic world.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.