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Study finds DCF’s two-tier system endangers children

The Department of Children and Families places too much emphasis on holding together troubled families at the expense of keeping children safe, according to a new report that calls on the agency to retool the way it responds to allegations of abuse and neglect.

The findings by the Pioneer Institute echo concerns raised by Governor Charlie Baker, who said last month that the department suffers from "mission confusion" and must focus squarely on protecting children from harm.

The report blames the two-track system that the department launched in 2009 to separate high-risk and low-risk cases, depending on their severity. It argues that the department places too many children on the lower-risk track without conducting a thorough investigation.

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The report points out that 10 children assigned to the lower-risk track died between 2009 and 2013, including 7 in 2013 alone, according to a story by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published this fall in the Globe.

"The two-track system creates a crack that kids can fall through," said Gregory W. Sullivan, who wrote the report with another Pioneer official, Matthew Blackbourn. "It's really important to fix that, and not simply allow a large percentage of kids to be placed on the lesser track and largely forgotten."

Pioneer's report comes at a pivotal moment in the debate over how to rebuild the department, as Baker, a founding director of the Pioneer Institute in the 1980s, negotiates with the social workers' union to overhaul how the department responds to abuse reports. Andrea Grossman, a department spokeswoman, said officials will review the report, but did not comment on its findings.

The Pioneer Institute, which promotes limited government, acknowledges that some of its recommendations — such as better technology at the department and more intense scrutiny of lower-track cases — would add significant costs to the state budget.

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"However, the expenditure of increased funds at DCF is, in our view, an example of money well spent in government," Sullivan said. "It's a good cause."

Under the two-tiered system, high-risk cases, are referred to social workers who investigate the safety of the child. Lower-risk cases, which involve neglect, are given to social workers charged with strengthening families.

The decisions have to be made within 24 to 72 hours, meaning they are often based on little more than the information gleaned from a caller to the state's child-abuse hotline, the report says.

The department recently announced that it would start routinely reviewing the criminal records of the adults involved, the family's prior involvement with child protective services, and the frequency and type of 911 calls to the home.

The report recommends that the department also check court records and interview extended family members, teachers, doctors, drug counselors and others before determining to which track children should be assigned.

Pioneer also urges the department to monitor children on the lower-risk track for 12 months after their cases are closed. That would require a significant addition to the workload at the department, whose social workers already handle heavy caseloads.

In addition, the report calls on the department to install computer "dashboards" so managers can more easily monitor cases.

The report cites recent reviews of the department by the Office of the Child Advocate, the Child Welfare League of America, and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Sullivan said he also spoke to department Commissioner Linda S. Spears, who has said the two-track system was not implemented well, and to the social workers' union, which has argued that the system jeopardizes children's safety.

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"The way it is now, it cannot and should not remain," said Peter MacKinnon, the president of the union, who is negotiating with the Baker administration to change the policy by Nov. 17. "If we're going to keep it, we need to do it differently."

MacKinnon said Pioneer's recommendation that the department check court records, while laudable, could be difficult to carry out because many are not available online. He also said the recommendation that the department monitor lower-track cases for 12 months after they are closed would overwhelm social workers, who are struggling to handle their current caseloads.

"Just on the surface, that sounds really difficult, if not impossible, to do," MacKinnon said.

The state also needs to provide services to help troubled families — an area Pioneer's report did not address.

"You have to actually have the services, otherwise you're not doing differential response," Elsen said, referring to the two-track system. "We don't adequately fund the services needed to keep kids safe at home."

Mike Dsida, deputy chief counsel at the state public defender agency, agreed, saying states that have successfully used a two-track system provide the services needed to help unstable families. He said he worried about the notion promoted by Baker and the Pioneer Institute that the department places too much emphasis on family preservation and not on child safety.

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The department has an obligation under state and federal law to make reasonable efforts to keep families together, Dsida said.

"That's not only a matter of law, it's also good policy," said Dsida, whose agency represents parents and children in department cases. "Children who are with their families, with support services, do better than children, in general, who are placed in foster care."


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.