Children with severe autism placed in residential schools are among society’s most vulnerable members. The state, which licenses these schools, has a responsibility to care for students.
A Boston Globe Spotlight investigation into horrific abuse and neglect at residential schools found that the state has abandoned its obligation to students, leaving students subject to the whims of caretakers who are often poorly paid and trained, without imposing adequate oversight and accountability on the schools.
This needs to change.
The investigation documents stories of physical assaults by caretakers on students with disabilities. Using public records scattered among agencies, a Globe reporter looked at 13 schools serving students with autism; the schools are licensed by the state and run by private nonprofits. It found that regulators at the Department of Early Education and Care documented nearly 1,000 licensing and safety violations during almost 450 separate investigations at residences affiliated with the schools since mid-2016, concentrated in about half of the schools. The Department of Children and Families substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect against school employees in more than 80 investigations since mid-2018.
The Globe report points to several systemic weaknesses that can and should be improved to better protect students.
The first problem is a lack of professionalization in a field that is generally low-paying and has high turnover. That low pay and high turnover result in inexperienced staff who are inadequately trained. While classroom staff, like teachers, need to be appropriately certified, there is no such certification for workers at the group homes where students live. The state requires criminal record checks and training but doesn’t set requirements for minimum qualifications, experience, or pay for the positions. Establishing minimum qualifications and pay, and ensuring adequate training and supervision for any home receiving a state license, would cost money and exacerbate staff shortages for a short time, but in the long term it would lead to a more professionalized industry where workers are better trained and stay at their jobs longer.
The second problem is a lack of transparency when abuse or safety violations occur. The Department of Early Education and Care maintains an informative online search engine where anyone can search for a child-care provider and find the results of their inspections and any investigations. No such website exists for residential schools. Creating a similar portal would help parents better evaluate programs.
The state does maintain registries of caregivers with substantiated allegations of abuse against them, which are available to potential employers when the person applies for another caregiving job. But a loophole means that some assaults at residential homes are not listed in either registry. The Department of Children and Families maintains a registry of people who abused children under 18. The Disabled Persons Protection Commission maintains a registry for people who abused adults in programs overseen by the Department of Developmental Services. Students with disabilities can remain in residential schools until age 22, and there is no registry for someone who abused an adult in a program overseen by the Department of Early Education and Care. This is an important oversight because while some incidents of abuse may turn up on criminal records checks, not all allegations of abuse, even those substantiated by a state agency, result in a criminal prosecution or a conviction. The Legislature should close this loophole.
Finally, residential schools need to be held accountable for their performance. If a school has numerous licensing violations or incidents of abuse or neglect, it should be subject to more frequent unannounced inspections. Responsibility for oversight of the schools should be clarified, since it is split among multiple agencies. If there were publicly reported standards or outcomes at these facilities, potentially with state payments and contracts tied to performance, schools would be incentivized to improve their quality.
There are many hard-working employees of residential schools doing an incredibly difficult job well. It is the job of the state and the nonprofits that run the schools to ensure that a few overly aggressive, inexperienced, or untrained workers don’t jeopardize the safety of the children and young adults under their care.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.