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Mass. foster care oversight plagued by conflict of interest, advocates say

Governor Charlie Baker announced systemwide reforms and more funds to rebuild the Department of Children and Families after he took office in 2015. But advocates say progress in DCF is slow.
Governor Charlie Baker announced systemwide reforms and more funds to rebuild the Department of Children and Families after he took office in 2015. But advocates say progress in DCF is slow.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2015)

Child advocates are calling for the creation of an outside, independent agency to regularly review foster care placements in Massachusetts, saying the current system is rife with conflicts of interest and lacks transparency and accountability.

Under the current system, the Department of Children and Families is responsible for reviewing its own performance, something the advocates say is ineffective.

“We need a foster care review that’s independent from DCF itself, and that’s robust enough to identify and communicate clearly when DCF has not provided for the safety and well being of the children in its care,” said Susan Elsen, a child welfare policy advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

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Recent Globe stories have highlighted a beleaguered, technology-starved state system in which children are often bounced from one temporary foster home to another and typically wait months for mental health services.

Federal regulations require states to review foster children’s cases at least once every six months to ensure they are receiving appropriate care and that a timely plan is in place to either reunify families or release a child for adoption.

Foster care placements are audited by a unit within DCF. A panel, consisting of a member from the review unit, an administrator from the local DCF office responsible for the case under review, and a volunteer from the local community scrutinizes each child’s progress. The panel produces a report with recommendations for follow-up action, and that report is sent to the social worker responsible for the case and others involved with the child, such as the foster parents.

But parents say too often they don’t get notified of the meetings. And child advocates say there’s no way to know whether DCF workers are following up on the panel’s recommendations and whether the plight of children in the agency’s care is improving, because so little information is publicly released.

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“We are not seeing real data about what’s going on across the system and what’s the outcome for these kids,” said June Ameen, policy director at Friends of Children, an advocacy organization.

The organization is backing legislation, currently in the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, that would create an independent state agency to review foster care cases. The agency would designate local panels of trained citizens to conduct reviews and would be responsible for following up on individual cases to ensure progress. The agency would have more sophisticated data and tracking systems than DCF, with responsibility for producing regular, public reports on how children are faring.

“Right now DCF reviews itself and we think it’s really important for that to be taken out of DCF and be done independently,” said Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

But Maria Mossaides, the state’s child advocate, disagrees. The advocate is appointed by the governor to be a watchdog for children in state care.

Mossaides said it’s important for DCF to review itself to ensure it has a “robust internal quality review” system. She acknowledged significant problems with DCF’s aging computer systems that often failed to notify parents and others about the reviews. But she said she has been working with DCF since the fall of 2017 to update the technology for case reviews and said it should be fully functioning by June 30.

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Yet even then, the technology will not be ready to produce reports that allow DCF staffers to track whether each review’s recommendations are acted on, she said. Nor will it be able to produce regular public reports tracking how children are faring across the system. Mossaides had no timetable for when those might be ready.

“This is a fundamental rebuilding of a department that was severely underfunded and broken, because they didn’t have the tools, and that included adequate staffing and an IT system,” Mossaides said.

Governor Charlie Baker announced systemwide reforms and more funds to accomplish that after he took office in 2015. But the department was in crisis following the deaths of several DCF-monitored children, and it prioritized boosting its ranks of social workers in order to monitor children more closely.

Advocates are frustrated, saying the progress for foster care improvements has been too slow. Ameen, from Friends of Children, said its research shows most states do not rely on their child welfare agencies to police themselves but instead tap another state department or an outside entity.

Nebraska’s system is often held up as the gold standard. An outside organization has for decades reviewed foster placements, produced follow-up reports on each child and quarterly public reports on the progress of the state’s child welfare agency. The organization has the technology to track, in real time, where every child is placed each night.

At the same time, federal data show Nebraska ranks near the top nationally for providing stable placements for children and not repeatedly shuffling them through foster homes, with little technology to track them — problems that plague Massachusetts.

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Kim B. Hawekotte, executive director of Nebraska’s Foster Care Review Office, said she believes the transparency and accountability of her state’s system improve the quality of care for kids because their regular reports are able to flag problems quickly and alert lawmakers.

“Our data is independent, and it’s based upon our 4,400 reviews we do each year,” Hawekotte said. “It’s not [the state child welfare agency] trying to color their data the way they want to.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com.