Massachusetts officials, struggling to find placements for an influx of abused children, have sharply increased the number of foster homes allowed to take in more children than generally permitted, according to two years of data recently obtained by the Globe.
The data, released through a public records request, show the Department of Children and Families granted 172 "overcapacity waivers" — generally to allow more than four foster children in a single home — between October 2014 and October 2015, up from 118 over the previous 12-month period.
Child advocates said the increase suggests the department has had to bend its rules more frequently as it struggles to reconcile a chronic lack of available foster homes with a historic spike in its child protection caseload.
The caseload has reached record levels in recent years as families have been torn apart by the opioid epidemic and placed under greater scrutiny following the deaths of several children under the agency's watch.
"We're in the perfect storm," said Maria Z. Mossaides, who heads the state Office of the Child Advocate. "We are seeing an increase in the number of kids, so we know we need more foster homes."
DCF rules generally permit up to four foster children in a single home, as long as that home has no more than six children total. The limits are lower for homes with very young children. When a home is granted an "overcapacity waiver," it can house up to six foster children and eight children total.
The waivers became an issue last year after the department acknowledged that it had inappropriately granted one for an Auburn home where a 2-year-old died and a 22-month-old was grievously injured. Both suffered from heat stroke and had bruises that suggested that they may have struggled to get out of car seats.
DCF had approved the waiver to allow the mother to care for six children in her home — three young foster children, in addition to her own three children, one of whom has special needs.
Later, DCF said the waiver should not have been issued because the home did not have enough space for all six children. Furthermore, DCF acknowledged that the children should never have been entrusted to the mother, who had been repeatedly accused of neglect.
DCF workers are instructed to grant an overcapacity waiver only if it is in the best interest of the child who would be placed there and the agency has made efforts to locate another, more suitable foster home.
Mossaides and other child advocates pointed out that the department often grants the waivers to prevent siblings from being separated from one another when they are removed from their families and placed in foster care.
"There are some instances in which overcapacity waivers may be appropriate and best for kids," said Susan R. Elsen, an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which advocates for services for families in the child protection system.
But the fact that the number of waivers granted by DCF increased by nearly 50 percent over a 12-month period suggests the department may not be doing enough to stabilize troubled families and may be removing too many children, Elsen said.
"It raises the question: do we really need to be investing more in keeping kids out of foster care, rather than becoming more lenient in our safety requirements for foster homes?" she said.
Some foster parents have been granted waivers because they don't want to see a child turned away, said Cheryl Haddad, president of the Massachusetts Alliance For Families. But adding another child to a home may not be the best choice for that child or the foster parents, she said.
"It's putting everyone in a precarious situation, which is concerning," Haddad said.
Andrea Grossman, a DCF spokeswoman, said the department granted waivers for a variety of reasons, including the opioid crisis and heightened attention to at-risk children under age 5.
"It is critically important that children remain with their siblings in foster care to help them cope with the trauma of being removed from home," Grossman said in a statement. "DCF continues to actively recruit foster parents and relatives to ensure that homes are available when needed."
Statewide, the number of children removed from their homes by DCF jumped 28 percent between fiscal years 2013 and 2015, from 2,655 to 3,383, according to court records. As of Jan. 1, there were 5,750 children in departmental foster care, but only 4,722 department-run foster homes.
Mary McGeown, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said recent scandals at DCF have made it difficult to recruit foster parents. She said the state should launch a recruitment campaign and raise reimbursement rates, which range from about $21 to $26 a day, depending on the age of the child.
"We are seeing, across the state, a shortage of foster homes, and I believe it requires investment on the part of the state, as well as others," McGeown said. "We need people to understand it's important. It's a valuable service."
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.