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Technology overhaul aims to improve state’s beleaguered foster care system

FosterMA Connect (shown above) will allow licensed foster parents to ask the department questions, find helpful forms, and communicate with other foster parents.
FosterMA Connect (shown above) will allow licensed foster parents to ask the department questions, find helpful forms, and communicate with other foster parents.screenshot

The Baker administration is pursuing major technology upgrades to improve communication with thousands of foster parents, and to overhaul the process for placing abused and neglected children who are removed from their homes at night.

A new, secure intranet system will go live in the next week, allowing foster families to communicate directly with the state’s child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Families. And DCF says by November it will have a new after-hours hot line database that will be able to track open foster homes in real time.

The lack of such capabilities in a state known as a technological hub has sparked withering criticism of the agency. Recent Globe stories featured social workers who drove through the night with children as the department’s supervisors, hampered by a lack of a real-time database, searched for available foster homes.

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The union representing about 3,440 DCF workers said it is encouraged by the promised technology overhaul.

“We are happy to see it happening and we are anxious to see it be implemented,” said Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU Local 509. “We are hopeful that, once it goes live, it will be a tool that actually helps workers and help kids get placements, so on-call supervisors and workers in the field can focus on making sure kids are safe.”

The Baker administration said in a statement that it is “focused on providing front line social workers and foster families with the support and resources they need and deserve.”

Foster parents who were tapped by the state to test the intranet said they welcomed the upgrade, though some said it doesn’t go far enough to fix substantial problems they’ve encountered.

“They are getting out of the dark ages. It’s about time,” said Cheryl Haddad, president of the Massachusetts Alliance for Families, an advocacy group for foster families.

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E-mails will go out from DCF Monday to about 4,700 foster families announcing the new intranet, followed shortly by another e-mail to about 600 of those families who will receive information on how to use the system, called FosterMA Connect, according to Tomy Abraham, DCF’s information technology director. FosterMA Connect will launch on May 21 for that first batch of families, followed by successive waves of more families over the next month or two, Abraham said.

Parents who tested an early version of FosterMA Connect cheered the function that allows foster parents to download important forms — for documenting doctors’ visits or requesting reimbursements for driving children to appointments — that, until now, they’ve had to depend on social workers to furnish. They also liked having the ability to learn about DCF policy changes in a timely way online, because, they said, the department’s policies are often unclear, leaving each of the department’s 29 local offices to interpret them differently.

The intranet will look a little like Facebook; foster parents will create profiles and be able to contact one another through the platform.

But it will prohibit them from sharing specific information about any foster child, with DCF monitoring the content. That’s a significant shortcoming, foster parents say, because they often don’t receive from DCF adequate medical and other vital information about the children placed in their care, such as favorite foods or habits. Another foster family might have those details because children are often bounced from one foster home to another.

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Abraham said the department is discussing a way to address this concern, but had no timetable for when it may add a child-specific function to its intranet.

A DCF spokeswoman said the department spent $100,000 this fiscal year to develop, design, and implement the intranet. It is allocating $50,000 through June 2020 for ongoing operations and maintenance of the site.

The department has also solicited vendors to bid on an 11-year, $47 million contract to maintain a real-time database that will track available foster homes and operate DCF’s after-hours hot line, fielding calls from the public about suspected cases of child abuse and neglect.

The vendor will also take over some responsibilities of DCF supervisors who currently locate foster homes needed on an emergency basis on nights and weekends, and communicate with those foster families. DCF workers will update the database during business hours.

Families can’t independently update the database about their availability electronically; they will still need to call or e-mail their local social worker if, for instance, they are unable to accept an emergency foster placement because they are traveling or ill.

The contract proposal places the anticipated start date as Nov. 1, but contains an asterisk noting that date is subject to change.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.