Abused and neglected children awaiting foster placement are more likely to be playing in licensed day care centers, rather than crawling around grimy office floors at the Department of Children and Families. And frazzled families now have more social workers to help them navigate the department’s byzantine foster system.
But nearly five months after Governor Charlie Baker’s administration pledged to upgrade the state’s troubled foster care system, some serious problems remain.
Social workers are still scrambling many nights to find children emergency foster placements, relying on a chaotic, often paper-based system for tracking kids. The Baker administration said in May that a new after-hours hot line database to track open foster homes in real time would be up and running by Nov. 1. But officials said last week it won’t be operational till January.
Meanwhile, an online service for foster families to communicate with each other and exchange vital information about the kids they’re caring for has had a rocky start. Families are also still waiting for more in-depth training on how to care for severely traumatized children.
And, crucially, foster children still face long waits for mental health therapy, which has been one of foster parents’ top concerns. The state held eight public hearings over the summer, asking residents their thoughts on how to improve the state’s behavioral health system for everyone, but it has not yet announced next steps.
“The Department of Children and Families is working to implement all of the reforms originally announced in collaboration with SEIU Local 509 [the workers’ union] in May,” the agency said in a statement last week.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo last Wednesday directed the House Ways and Means committee vice chair, Denise Garlick, a nurse who has led several health-related legislative committees, to serve as his point-person on improving the foster care system, as the Legislature ramps up its oversight of DCF.
In an interview, Garlick, a Democrat from Needham, said she intends to seek out colleagues, families, and community leaders as lawmakers develop DCF-related legislation and the state budget in the coming months. She said past legislative work she’s done related to grandparents raising children and families roiled by opioids — both prevalent in the foster care system — would inform her thinking.
In July, DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, introduced a children’s health and wellness bill that would require DCF to report to the Legislature on its efforts to improve the foster care system. The legislation sailed through the House two days later and remains before the Senate’s Ways and Means committee.
A committee spokesman said lawmakers are doing their “due diligence and thoroughly reviewing the legislation.”
Mary McGeown, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said Garlick’s appointment is critical because it means a legislative point person will be looking at the problems comprehensively — and will have the speaker’s ear.
“You don’t want to see the attention of the administration ebb and flow by crisis,” McGeown said.
The Essex district attorney’s office continues to investigate the deaths of three children in separate incidents from April through June who were in DCF care. But it’s not clear if any of the deaths are related to problems at the agency.
In April, stories in the Globe revealed an overwhelmed and understaffed foster care system. The Baker administration promised upgrades to ease caseloads for swamped social workers and to more aggressively recruit and retain foster families. The administration also said it would develop more trauma training for foster families and speak with parents and providers about the waiting times for mental health care.
Since then, the administration has secured a total of 45 day care slots for children who were often languishing in nine of the busiest DCF offices, including ones in Boston, New Bedford, Worcester, and Springfield. DCF said it intends to expand this emergency day care initiative to the other 20 offices over the next four months.
DCF said it also has hired eight of 11 promised foster family recruiters, with three more planned soon. It said the department has seen a net gain of 12 foster homes since July, bringing the total to about 4,726 statewide. The department has struggled with a shortage of homes.
Other challenges remain.
McGeown, whose nonprofit has a $1.8 million annual state contract to coach foster families, said parents in recent meetings have complained about DCF’s new online service for parents, which was supposed to make information from the state and other families more accessible. She said some have had problems signing in, and others have not found the information helpful.
On Thursday, DCF said that only about 700 foster parents have logged in to the intranet, which is fewer than 20 percent of foster parents who provided the department with e-mail addresses. It said it is “actively encouraging” parents to tell the department how it can improve the site.
On the promised trauma training, McGeown said her organization has included some additional sessions on trauma in its schedule of classes that started in September and runs through January. But she said she is still in talks with DCF about offering parents more intensive instruction.
The DeLeo child wellness legislation requires DCF to explain to lawmakers how it is tracking and surveying foster families, including those who leave the system. The Globe found that some parents have left out of frustration over DCF’s failure to provide them with information about the children they’re caring for.
McGeown said her organization has talked to DCF about tracking why so many foster families drop out, but DCF has been unable to provide an accurate list of homes that have closed in a given period of time.
DCF declined to comment on its progress for tracking foster families, citing the pending legislation.
The union that represents DCF workers, the Service Employees International Union Local 509, earlier this year expressed concern about the litany of problems facing the agency. Now, Adriana Zwick, a social worker and SEIU chapter president, said DCF is paying attention.
“We agree in a lot more places than we disagree,” Zwick said. “But if we don’t keep pushing the agency, they are not necessarily going to stay on top of it.”