It was a situation the social workers already knew well: As night fell, there was nowhere else for the children to go.
But inside the Department of Children and Families office in downtown Springfield that August evening, there was nothing set up for two teenagers who needed somewhere to sleep that night.
So a pair of workers, brought in to watch them through the late hours, put the teens in two cramped visitation rooms off the lobby, according to two DCF workers who were briefed on the matter. Meant for supervised visits, the rooms each held a table and chairs for parents and children to talk, books and scattered toys meant to keep young ones occupied and calm.
But they weren’t meant for sleepovers. There were no beds, no showers, no kitchen to make food. So the state child welfare workers had the teenagers sleep on couches and bean bags, the two people briefed on the matter told the Globe.
“I was floored. I was disgusted,” said one of the DCF workers with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution. “I was like, there’s no way they can do that. How is that safe? How is that ok?”
Three years ago, the Globe reported that DCF offices had become de facto day-care centers, with workers sometimes driving across the state for hours to find a child a bed for the night. Last year, records suggested the agency was preparing for scenarios where kids might have to sleep in an office. In the last several months, that very scenario has begun playing out, according to e-mails and interviews with nearly a dozen current and former workers.
When the state has run out of available foster homes or group homes, some children have slept in offices, sometimes for multiple nights, never meant to house them at all.
Though the state agency does not disclose how many children sleep in its offices, it’s happened often enough that the union that represents thousands of child welfare workers and the state public defenders organization have attempted to track occurrences. Megan Piccirillo, a spokesperson for the workers’ union, said it has been told of 10 instances of children sleeping or staying in offices since July.
Some lawyers involved in child welfare cases said social workers have been warning juvenile judges that they have nowhere to put kids who are taken into DCF custody at all.
“A year ago, they would say, ‘We may not be able to find you a placement in this county or close to home,’ ” said child welfare attorney Cristina Freitas. “Now, in the last month or so, the DCF social worker has said, ‘We don’t have any placements available.’ ”
The DCF did not respond to requests for comment or answer questions about how many children have stayed in its offices overnight. Several workers spoke to the Globe on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
According to many providers and workers, the situation is worse than it has ever been. “I’ve been around a long time and this is different,” said Jane Lyons, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Children.
The circumstances feeding the dilemma have been present for years.
“DCF has not remedied the problem,” said Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel for the Committee of Public Counsel Services’ children and family law division. “It’s certainly a crisis.”
The Globe identified at least four cases since this summer where children slept in DCF offices overnight — part of a pattern that has outraged advocates and lawyers around the state. In one instance, a child ran away rather than spend the night in a DCF office, a person briefed on the matter told the Globe. In another, a child stayed overnight in a Springfield office for multiple days, another worker said.
The DCF oversees tens of thousands of cases every year, including 8,400 children in placement as of June of last year. The agency has struggled to house children, often putting them in a revolving carousel of foster homes around the state and, as recently as last year, preemptively preparing air mattresses in their offices in case a home didn’t open up for a child.
The experience is especially damaging for children who have already been removed from their families and then shuttled from foster home to foster home, added Freitas, who runs a law practice with her sister in Lowell.
“They’ve done everything,” Freitas said of her younger clients. “But they’ll still ask, ‘Am I not doing enough?’ ”
Even before the pandemic, Massachusetts was the second worst state in the country in finding stable placements for children, according to data collected by the federal Administration for Children and Families. In 2018, more than 30 percent of Massachusetts’ children were moved at least three times in their first year in the foster system, well beyond the national average of 16 percent, the data show.
The most recent numbers suggest the state still lags far behind others, ranking among the country’s bottom 10 states.
The state has tried to improve its recruitment of foster families, but has lost nearly 300 of its roughly 6,000 licensed homes from 2018 to 2021, according to data. The ongoing shortage of workers spurred by the pandemic has also slashed the number of beds group homes can staff, and some homes have closed entirely, advocates said.
This has translated to too few beds for the children in DCF’s care. The placement crisis has taken many forms, advocates said, from kids with special needs being placed with families who don’t have the resources to care for them, to children bouncing around emergency hot-line placements or teens ending up in unnecessarily intensive or restrictive group homes that can cause even more trauma.
Advocates were particularly alarmed last year when some DCF offices started e-mailing workers, asking for volunteers to staff children who might need to sleep in its buildings overnight.
Shortly after the Globe reported on the situation and referenced the e-mails, one DCF worker said, managers stopped referencing specific children who needed overnight care when mentioning overtime shifts.
That former DCF worker, who recently left the department, said the reasons for the e-mails were clear – even if they didn’t specifically mention children staying overnight. The woman, who is still involved in child welfare work, asked not to be named out of fear of retribution from the department.
“What else do we need to be in the office for?” she told the Globe. “They’re not saying why because we shouldn’t be having kids sleeping in the office.”
But the e-mails didn’t stop, according to more recent messages shared with the Globe. In one office in Western Massachusetts, local managers e-mailed an all-staff list at least five times this summer “looking to staff the office while we are awaiting placement this evening” or seeking “after hours office coverage.
The problem has continued to flare up around the state, according to half-a-dozen current and former workers. Multiple children have slept overnight in offices in the Springfield area, and at least two children have stayed in the agency’s office in New Bedford, workers said.
Part of the continuing problem, current and former workers said, is that finding foster homes for children has become increasingly difficult.
Asking foster parents to take in children for the night can be such a challenge that child welfare workers said they sometimes call multiple times, hoping a second entreaty might sway an uncertain parent.
Even the children who do find a real bed for the night can still end up in unsafe or unsuitable homes, several workers said.
In one case in Western Massachusetts, the department removed a child from its father — only to place the child with the father’s girlfriend, who had described herself as a family member, said a former DCF worker with knowledge of the case.
“Essentially we had to remove the kid from her too,” the worker said. “That’s what happens when we’re low on resources.”
SEIU Local 509, the bargaining unit that represents many DCF employees, proposed creating a round-the-clock respite program where kids would have beds and showers if they needed somewhere to stay last year, union spokeswoman Piccirillo said. The department, she said, did not provide a formal response.
Elizabeth Koh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.