The troubled state agency in charge of protecting children can’t yet say how many kids died of abuse and neglect last year. Or this year. Nor can it say how many children in its care, all told, have died so far in 2019, whether by accident, injury, or some other means.
A spokeswoman for the Baker administration said that data was “not readily available” Friday, a day after the Essex district attorney’s office announced it is investigating three unrelated deaths since mid-April of children in the care of the Department of Children and Families.
The administration said it will eventually report that information to the state’s child advocate, who is responsible for issuing annual reports. But the time lag between children’s deaths and the public release of information about them can be significant.
Child welfare advocates say the lack of prompt reporting makes it difficult to understand the plight of children in the state’s care in real time, or how the department could swiftly correct emergent problems.
“It is absolutely crucial that DCF both maintain, and make available to the public, data on how it is protecting the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children,” said Susan Elsen, a child welfare policy advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “Without knowing the data, provided with appropriate context and explanation, we are left in the dark.”
This much is known: 48 children in DCF care died last year, up from 40 in 2017. But it is unknown how many of those died by abuse and neglect.
The latest deaths, which are still under investigation by the state medical examiner, include a 4-week-old Haverhill boy in mid-April who was being monitored by DCF; a 3-month-old boy in Methuen in foster care; and a 15-month-old girl in Lawrence who was also in foster care.
DCF has long been plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability, and despite episodic efforts by the governor and Legislature to fix it, problems remain.
Earlier this year, the department acknowledged it relies on a largely paper-based system to track thousands of children in foster care. The department vowed to rectify that with a new computer system by this fall.
State lawmakers were fed up with delays and a lack of context in DCF’s data in the aftermath of a string of children’s deaths about five years ago. They ordered the creation of a task force to develop more timely and complete data on the welfare of children and families in DCF care. It gave the task force until early 2022 to get the job done.
Two years later, progress has been slow. Elsen, a member of that task force, says she is optimistic it will eventually “bring about the data transparency that’s needed, but we have our work cut out for us.”
Maria Mossaides, the state’s child advocate who co-chairs that task force, defended its progress, saying it inherited a morass of often outdated state and federal rules regarding information that DCF is required to track and report.
But she acknowledged that her own agency, which is charged with reporting on the welfare of the thousands of children in state care, including those in DCF, has also missed its mark in producing timely public reports. The latest available information came out in March, about nine months after the end of the fiscal year it covered.
“We understand that people should get access to the data we analyze,” Mossaides said. “We are trying to impose a better deadline and get the information out sooner.”
In response to concerns about the department’s transparency and accountability, DCF spokeswoman Andrea Grossman released a statement saying DCF’s mission “is first and foremost to protect children from abuse and neglect,” and that it provides services and support to approximately 45,000 children under the age of 18 and their families.
She said that in addition to notifying the child advocate about annual counts of children’s deaths, the department posts “commonly requested documents and quarterly snapshots” on its website.
The Baker administration in May announced major changes in DCF to address concerns about the problem-plagued foster care system. The administration said the changes will improve the lives of thousands of children, ease caseloads for their swamped social workers, and more aggressively recruit and retain foster families.
But advocates say progress is overdue.
When Baker took office in 2015, he vowed to beef up the beleaguered child welfare department following a public outcry over the deaths of several children. Hundreds of social workers were hired, and caseloads stabilized.
But since then, workloads have risen and hundreds of foster families have quit, saying the department has done a miserable job of communicating and supporting them. The Baker administration has pledged to fix that, too.
“It takes a phenomenal amount of time. And there will be problems,” said Jane Lyons, executive director of Friends of Children, an advocacy group. “But remove transparency and accountability, and the problem is supremely compounded, and people tend to feel that they are not being truthful about what’s going on.”
Her nonprofit organization works with teenagers aging out of state custody and families who are still receiving DCF services. She said her organization often needs state data, such as how many teens dropped out of DCF and are at risk of being homeless, to write the grants the nonprofit relies on for funding. But she said it is nearly impossible to get such information.
DCF’s problems precede Baker. Five years ago, the public was outraged about missing children in DCF care after the department acknowledged it wasn’t tracking teens who’d run away from foster homes. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration promised to upgrade technology in order to do a better job of tracking runaways — and all the children under the supervision of DCF.
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org