In the summer of 2018, the Department of Children and Families moved its bustling downtown Lowell field office to a remote office park in Chelmsford. In July, it relocated its downtown Malden office from a public-transit-friendly location to an office park in Wakefield harder to reach by bus or the subway.
Now, DCF is making plans to move its busy Cambridge office to suburban Burlington.
Using words like “disastrous” and “bleak,” lawyers for hundreds of struggling parents who have lost custody of their children say the office relocations have created significant transportation hurdles for many families. Parents, many of whom don’t have cars, must now trek to these hard-to-reach offices for state-monitored visits with their children. Often they are struggling with addiction while trying to repair fragile family bonds and regain custody.
The lawyers say the agency that is supposed to be devoted to building stronger families is instead creating obstacles that tear them apart.
“Our clients are disproportionately poor and disproportionately dependent on public transit or the kindness of friends,” said Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel at the state public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “When [public transit] is taken away or significantly scaled back, it makes it harder for them to see their children and their children to see them.”
Spokespeople for DCF and the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), the agency that procures government offices, declined to say whether the agencies seek public input about transportation needs when securing new DCF offices.
“DCF works with DCAMM to ensure that the needs of clients and staff are taken into account during any location procurement,” the agencies said in a statement.
They said the lease was expiring on the Malden site, and the Lowell building was “no longer suitable.” They said several other buildings were considered in those cities but did not meet security or size requirements.
But in its request for bids for new office space in Burlington — to replace an office now located at 810 Memorial Drive in Cambridge — the state is silent on public transportation access. The document only notes it will need an estimated 90 public parking spaces within a quarter-mile of the building.
The two state agencies added, however, that leases are expiring on five more of the 29 DCF offices around the state where parents meet with their children — in Worcester, Holyoke, Taunton, Roxbury, and Fall River — and that all five will be staying in those communities.
DCF said that it’s also trying to move some family meetings into more inviting spaces. Since 2017, it said, it has hired 107 social worker technicians and plans to hire 29 more by July to supervise meetings for parents allowed to visit their children in family-friendly places, such as parks, libraries, or relatives’ homes.
But this hasn’t eased the path for Carmen Fernandez, a mother of two girls in foster care who is recovering from addiction and rebuilding her life. She is living in a homeless shelter while searching for an affordable apartment, and commuting by bus to work in a Burlington office supply store.
Her 90-minute journey, each way, to see her girls in the Wakefield DCF office requires a train, a bus, and a 20-minute walk. She used to visit them in the now-closed Malden office, which was easier: an hourlong train ride from where she had lived in Lawrence.
The bus and train schedules to Wakefield are so poorly synchronized with the one-hour time slot the state assigns for the visit that she has to take the whole day off work to make it on time.
“I feel like they’re setting me up for failure,” Fernandez said.
She said she has repeatedly asked for visits that are closer and in more family-friendly places.
But lawyers say visits outside DCF offices are not often granted, despite a low risk of parents absconding with or harming a child. And yet, lawyers say, the outside visits are critical for adding a sense of normalcy to a fraught gathering.
In a blunt letter to DCF, the state public defender’s agency said the Lowell relocation to Chelmsford “has been a disastrous move for the families that DCF serves.” The letter describes significant gaps in the schedule for the single bus line that stops close to the new office park in Chelmsford. And parents are expected to play with their children in grim, windowless rooms.
“Visits are bleak at the DCF facility,” it says. “There is nothing to engage a family near the Chelmsford office, no outdoor playground, no local fast food chain, no urban street to stroll along and window shop.”
Fernandez finds the Wakefield office a dispiriting place too, with few windows and little to do. She meets with her two daughters, now 10 and 12 years old, twice a month. The building is only a quarter-mile from the commuter rail, but the Malden office it replaced was closer to more bus lines and the MBTA. Lawyers say most of the parents who were assigned to the Malden office lived in Malden or neighboring Everett.
The commute to Wakefield for Fernandez is expensive: It costs her $7 round trip. She said her repeated requests for help from DCF for travel vouchers have gone unheeded.
Lawyers for DCF families say the agency provides few parents with vouchers, despite the rising need after the recent office moves. Many who used to meet their children in Lowell could walk to the site, they said.
“The fact that Lowell has moved is one of the latest in a long string of obliviousness for poor people trying to access justice and to see their kids,” said Anne Bader-Martin, a Newton-based attorney who handles DCF cases.
Bader-Martin is also executive director of a nonprofit, One Can Help, that assists children and families involved with DCF. The organization provides emergency food and gift cards for urgently needed basic necessities, apartment security deposits for homeless families, and other extras to help ease the path. She said pleas for travel assistance are increasingly common.
The vast majority of children removed from their parents by DCF and placed in foster care ultimately are reunited. That, said Dsida of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, makes it all the more imperative for DCF to make visits accessible and substantive, not relegated to stark rooms in hard-to-reach office parks.
“It’s incumbent on DCF to make [reunification] happen smoothly and quickly,” he said, “and with as little trauma as possible.”