Facing a critical lack of homes and staff in the foster system, the state child welfare office has introduced a controversial initiative to use apartments at three locations as emergency overnight shelters for youths in need.
The Department of Children and Families described the apartments, located in Boston, New Bedford, and Springfield, as emergency resources used for youths with complex behavioral or medical needs who can be difficult to house elsewhere. DCF is working to develop more permanent solutions, the department said.
“Children come into foster care at all hours of the day and night when families experience emergencies,” said Andrea Grossman, a DCF spokesperson. The apartments, she said, “give children and youth who often have highly specialized needs a comfortable place to stay.”
The policy, though, has prompted safety concerns from social workers, who cited a recent incident at one of the apartments in which a teen was able to lock herself into a room and prevent staff from entering. Meanwhile, child advocates see the apartments as another sign DCF is failing to provide stable homes for all of the more than 7,000 children in foster care.
“This is symptomatic of the way in which DCF has failed to appropriately develop and manage their placement resources,” said Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel of the Children and Family Law Division at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents children in the child welfare system.
The lack of foster homes in Massachusetts has been a years-long problem, and children with nowhere else to go have sat in DCF offices that double as day cares or been driven around for hours by social workers in search of a bed. Last fall, the Globe reported children sleeping in DCF offices because of the lack of beds. The disparity between foster children and available beds has eased slightly, but a gap still exists. The number of Massachusetts children in foster care has shrunk by almost 17 percent from 2018 to 2022, but the number of licensed foster homes declined by 12 percent over the same period, according to data gathered by The Imprint, an independent national news outlet focused on youth and child welfare.
Staff shortages at group homes for foster children have made it even harder to find beds for those with complex needs, Grossman said, and the department has budgeted $431 million for congregate care, a $94.1 million increase this year, primarily to support staff increases, which should make more beds available.
DCF obtained access to the apartments through contracts with two foster service providers, HopeWell Inc., of Dedham, and the Kennedy-Donovan Center, of Foxborough, in November, a month after the Globe reported on children sleeping in DCF offices. The apartments, which are owned or leased by the companies, had been used as temporary housing for young adults who had recently aged out of the child welfare system, but were vacant when the new initiative began.
Kennedy-Donovan has a four-bedroom, five-bed apartment in New Bedford that it staffs, DCF said. The company’s contract states the unit is for youths ages 10 to 18. HopeWell provides apartments for those ages 12 to 18 in Boston and Springfield. Each can accommodate two youths, according to the company’s contract with DCF. At least one DCF social worker or social worker technician is on site when a child is in one of the units, DCF said.
The department can reach an agreement with the companies to place younger children in the units, the contracts state.
The three apartments cost the department almost $380,000 through June. DCF budgeted close to $1 million to cover the anticipated need for the New Bedford unit alone. That covers costs that include food and staff who supervise and help with activities like homework and recreation, according to the company’s contract.
Children typically stay in the apartments for one to three nights at most, said Ethel Everett, chapter president for DCF workers at the union SEIU Local 509.
Social workers are increasingly relying on the apartments as it becomes harder to find other placements, she said.
“Instead of it being the exception, now it’s almost an expectation,” Everett said.
Other placement options typically include foster families and congregate care facilities, she said, “and this is now on the list.”
Though the apartments were intended for youths with complex needs, Everett said they have also housed recent runaways and kids in transition from one placement to another.
“It’s also very isolating for kids,” she said. “You’re in an apartment with two staff and you’re isolated there.”
Social workers who staff the apartments might not be familiar with the units or the neighborhoods they’re assigned to, or the child they’re caring for, Everett said, which contributes to staff’s safety concerns. The teenager who locked herself into a room in Springfield was able to keep staff out because a doorknob had been installed incorrectly, Everett said. She escaped out a window because a screen also was installed incorrectly. The teen returned unharmed, Everett said.
Shaheer Musafa, HopeWell’s president and chief executive, said the doorknob was an oversight as his company quickly readied the Springfield apartment. The organization has since removed locks from all doors except the bathroom, he said.
Offering kids a bed in an apartment is better than a sleeping bag in a government office, he said.
“There’s a shortage of placements, and I think the department was trying to do a good thing,” he said. “We can have a conversation about what are the long-term solutions, but in the meantime there are kids that need our help today.”
At least one child welfare attorney agreed. Edythe Ellin, a Northampton lawyer, said a teenage girl she represents spent a weekend in the Springfield apartment and described it as “fine.” More troubling than a few nights in an apartment, Ellin said, is the reality that her client was relocated to about 10 different places over two months this spring and summer due to the limited housing options .
“The issue is there’s no place for this kid,” Ellin said.
There are 7,345 Massachusetts foster children, and about 4,720 are likely to be placed in families’ homes, either with kin or with foster parents, DCF said. There are just shy of 4,000 such foster homes statewide. Other children are placed in congregate care facilities or with families who hope to adopt them.
Several other lawyers who work with children in the foster system said the state has created its own housing crisis by being too quick to remove children from their homes, rather than supporting struggling families. Massachusetts reduced home removals by one-third from 2018 to 2022, according to DCF. But, as of 2021, the state’s average number of removals still exceeded the national average, according to Child Trends, a national nonprofit researching policy issues that affect children. Massachusetts foster children are also more likely to have experienced four or more placements than children nationwide, according to the Massachusetts advocacy group Friends of Children.
Some child advocates also worry that a brief placement in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people is just another trauma for youths already facing abuse or neglect at home and removal from their families.
“A home is so much more than a room to stay in,” said Cristina Freitas, a child welfare attorney. “It’s having a comfortable relationship with that person, getting a hug, having a warm meal of food that you’re used to eating.”
This story has been updated to correct DCF’s budget for congregant care this fiscal year for services to support foster children with complex needs.