Metro

Report cites backlog for appeals in DCF abuse, neglect cases

Child agency is overwhelmed, consultant says

The appeals process at the state Department of Children and Families for people who are found to have committed child abuse or neglect is beset with a backlog of cases, according to a preliminary report from a consultant hired by the state to review the procedures.

“Even without the backlog, the current system . . . is unable to cope with incoming” appeals from those looking to challenge the agency’s findings, said the report from the Boston-based Ripples Group. “In other words, backlogs are likely to grow if precautions are not taken.”

The report, dated May 1, also found people who bring appeals are not receiving DCF files on the case before hearings.

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About one quarter of appeals result in a reversal of initial findings, the preliminary report found. The firm plans to submit its final, detailed report to the Legislature in June.

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Under state law, DCF investigates reports of child abuse or neglect, and a substantiated report can result in a range of actions, including removal of a child, regular monitoring of a family by agency social workers, and referral to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.

The agency also maintains a registry of alleged perpetrators that includes those whom DCF has found responsible for abuse or neglect.

Appellants can seek a fair hearing to contest DCF findings and have their names removed from the registry. In addition, they can appeal several other DCF actions including the denial of a foster parent application or the termination of services to youths who turn 18.

According to figures provided by DCF, there are currently 2,614 pending fair hearings, down from 3,429 in 2010. In 2014, there were 1,916 fair hearing requests out of 24,517 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect, the agency said.

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“The administration is working diligently to address the significant backlog of fair hearing requests inherited at the Department of Children and Families, adding another full-time hearing officer just last month to assist with our ability to process existing and new fair hearing cases as they arise,” said DCF spokeswoman Rhonda Mann in a statement.

Mann added that “Governor [Charlie] Baker has also proposed an increase in DCF funding to further provide the resources and tools the department needs to protect our most vulnerable children.”

A spokesman for Baker referred questions to DCF.

The report found no evidence of bias among DCF officials who hear appeals under the fair hearing process, that officers conduct hearings in a professional manner, and that the backlog has improved since 2010. Nevertheless, the report found, even “appellants who had their cases reversed voiced doubts about the fairness of fair hearings. Most of their concerns appear to be about the original investigation carried out by the area office. They are more positive about hearing officers.”

Several child advocates either could not be reached for comment on Monday or declined to discuss the findings until the Ripples Group releases its final report.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.