A children’s advocacy group has issued a series of scathing reports on the Massachusetts foster care system, contending that nearly 1 in 5 children in state custody for at least two years have suffered abuse or neglect.
The group, called Children’s Rights, released the reports Thursday as part of a federal class-action lawsuit it brought against the state’s child welfare system in 2010.
It asserts that children are mistreated at a high rate under state care, that they often bounce from one foster home to the next, and that they sometimes stay in the foster system for years. Approximately 1 in 6 who are reunited with their families return to foster care after further abuse or neglect, the group says.
In several reports submitted by child welfare specialists, the group said the state’s Department of Children and Families is plagued by dysfunction, low staffing, and lax oversight.
“Far too many children in Massachusetts remain at risk of maltreatment even after they enter the protection of the state’s child welfare system,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “These new reports further underscore the critical need to overhaul DCF as it fails to meet its moral and legal duty to keep kids in foster care safe from further harm.”
The Department of Children and Families defended its performance, saying it “remains confident in our case management practices as we work to protect children from abuse and neglect.”
“We’re confident in the work we’re doing to protect children,” Angelo McClain, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, said in an interview Friday.
The agency said it was prepared to take the case to trial, unlike other states that Children’s Rights had taken legal action against. It said the group’s reports were not independent assessments but part of the legal discovery process.
“We will dispute their accusations in court,” McClain said.
He said the agency tries to keep children at home when possible and steer them to family members when that is not an option. “We recognize it’s not good for kids to come into foster care,” he said. “We find ways to support them in their own home, and if we have to remove them, we’ve been trying to place them with kin more often.”
McClain said that about 26 percent of children are placed with kin, up from 20 percent three years ago.
Children’s Rights, however, said federal data show that since 2006 Massachusetts has consistently ranked in the bottom tier of state welfare systems on several standard measures, such as keeping children in stable homes and finding permanent homes in a timely manner.
The department “is failing the children it serves,” one review stated. “Rather than providing a safe harbor for children who have suffered abuse and neglect in their family homes, DCF too often places children at risk of additional harm and instability, and too often fails to provide for children’s basic physical and emotional needs.”
The group also found that more than 25 percent of the time, the agency’s social workers fail to make required monthly visits to children. More than 25 percent of approved foster homes do not receive required annual assessments, it said.
Among a sample of children who entered foster care between July 2009 and July 2010, more than 18 percent who were reunited with their parents were again removed from the home because they were abused or neglected, the group said.
The trial is scheduled to begin in January.