Incidents of child neglect in group homes in Massachusetts — homes that are supposed to be safe harbors for abused and neglected children — jumped sharply in the past year, according to a new report from the state’s Child Advocate.
The report found that at least 184 children were neglected in group homes during the last fiscal year, which ended in June — a 55 percent increase over the previous year. More than 10 percent were 11 years old or younger.
“These are kids the Commonwealth is undertaking to protect, and these are very high numbers,” said Susan Elsen, a child welfare policy advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
The Child Advocate’s office monitors state agencies to ensure children and their families are receiving timely and appropriate care. It reports annually on those services and gaps in care.
Maria Mossaides, the state’s Child Advocate, said in an interview that “neglect” covers a wide range of problems, including situations where children fought because staff were too scarce or inattentive. In other cases, children did not receive necessary services, such as medical care.
About 1,500 children in state custody are living in group homes, the report said.
Mossaides’ office found that five group homes had three or more reports of abuse or neglect. When her office scrutinized the incidents, it found some common issues: problems with recruiting, training, and retaining sufficient staff.
“When the economy is better, there is high turnover because there are other job opportunities for people rather than working in a group home situation,” she said.
Mossaides said her agency, along with the state’s Health and Human Services office, is studying ways to improve training for group home workers.
“This is really hard work,” she said.
Jane Lyons, executive director of Friends of Children, said the state should be taking a closer look at how and why children are placed in group homes, which is one of the most costly ways to care for children.
“Are the placements there appropriate?” she said.
The report also shed new light on how the opioid crisis is damaging young people. Among the 116 children reported to the state as having been “emotionally injured” last year, more than 60 percent had witnessed an overdose. The other children with emotional injuries had witnessed violence, other injuries, or deaths and suicides.
“How do we deal with this in response to a child calling 911 and saying, ‘My parent is not waking up?’ ” Mossaides said. “It’s a pretty traumatic thing.”
She said her office is studying ways the state could provide crisis counseling to children who have just witnessed such traumatic incidents. Typically, the state’s Department of Children and Families removes children from the home and finds them emergency foster care, but little is done immediately to help them process the trauma.
The state, however, is already facing considerable challenges providing mental health counseling for foster children.
The Globe earlier this year reported that foster parents complain of a chaotic state system that fails to supply them with children’s vital medical information, or provide psychological support for kids who badly need it. Many reported waiting months for such care.
Yet lawmakers struck language designed to help foster families from a children’s health care bill that passed late Wednesday.
The language would have required DCF to report steps it’s taking to “provide timely information sharing with foster parents,” including children’s medical histories and information about mental health support available to families. It also would have required DCF to explain how it’s surveying foster families, including the many who leave the system out of frustration.
Representative Denise Garlick, the House Ways and Means committee vice chair, who was appointed by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in September to oversee DCF legislation, said the language was removed because it had not been “fully vetted.” She said another DCF-related bill, now before the Ways and Means Committee, would require DCF to report a raft of information on the foster system. But that bill doesn’t include the provisions sought by families for better information sharing.
Garlick said the committee will “discuss ways to ensure that the goals of prevention, protection, and permanency for families and children of Massachusetts are addressed comprehensively, and proactively informed by timely, appropriate data.”