Neglected and abused children are lingering in Massachusetts foster care for an average of nearly two years, and many who have reunited with family return to the system at a rate above the national median, according to a new report that underscores the challenges still hobbling the state’s child welfare system.
The Department of Children and Families’ first annual report, while detailing some progress in reducing caseloads and hiring staff, highlights a series of other stubborn issues facing the long-troubled agency.
Children are bouncing between homes within the foster care system at a rate nearly double the national standard, for example. And teens in foster care are graduating high school at a rate far below DCF’s own goals.
Released this week, the 77-page report is in itself a novel effort. It comes after a working group has already spent more than two years developing better ways to track the department. DCF’s commissioner, Linda S. Spears, called it the “most comprehensive report the department has ever produced.”
But amid the various trends — which are detailed over five years, some for the first time publicly — advocates say it lacks necessary context about how DCF is using the data or what’s driving the changes.
It also doesn’t include other data, such as the number of children who died while under the state’s watch, which DCF officials say they include in a separate report.
“It’s a lot of what, but it’s not a lot of why. And that’s the big worry here,” said Jane Lyons, executive director of Friends of Children, an advocacy organization. Lyons pointed specifically to data on children returning to foster care after reunifying with their family.
“The question from all of us is, what do we hope for when they enter the system? How do we know they’re going to leave in better shape than they arrive?” Lyons said. “You want to be able to assess how the department views these numbers in terms of its mission and vision.”
Spears said the design of the report was the result of a consensus among advocates, legislators, and the department, and reflects the types of data the agency tracks. The number of children adopted, for example, rose by more than 50 percent in four years, reaching 936 in 2019. And worker caseloads, aided by new hires and a drop in the number of children in the system, stand at roughly 18 to 1 — a “historic” low, according to the agency.
“We’ve made a good deal of progress. I think the report shows that,” said Spears, whom Governor Charlie Baker appointed in 2015 to reshape an agency he made a focus of his campaign. “I think that the report, as it’s designed to do, shows what’s next. What are the things that we need to continue to work on?”
The data were not short on suggestions.
As of last year, children were, on average, staying 23½ months in the state’s care, compared to 20 just four years earlier. As a result, about 1 of 3 children now stays in continuous state care for more than two years, and the number who have remained for more than four years — a total of 1,075 as of June 30 — has jumped by hundreds since 2015, despite fewer kids overall being in placement.
And even when children are reunited with their families, about 16 percent — or 1 of 6 — return to foster care within 12 months. It’s an improvement from earlier years, but it lags the national median of 15 percent. To officials and advocates, it’s also a reminder of the challenge in piecing back together families battling opioid use or other issues.
“I think it’s outside factors that are changing that. I think it’s harder for families to maintain,” said Cathie Twiraga, president of the Massachusetts Alliance for Families, an advocacy group for foster families. Twiraga pointed to her now 15-year-old son, whom she fostered for the first 18 months of his life before he reunited with his mother. But two months later, he returned. Twiraga later adopted him.
“His birth mother wasn’t ready, and she wasn’t being honest,” Twiraga said.
The Baker administration in May announced a raft of changes to the state’s troubled foster care system, including efforts to more aggressively recruit and retain foster families.
It came after a series of Globe stories revealed an overwhelmed and understaffed system in which children are being shifted from home to home. And frustrated foster parents are dropping out at a time when the state needs more of them.
The annual report shows DCF has made some headway this year but not enough to meet even previous levels. Nearly 30 percent of children placed in Massachusetts foster care in fiscal year 2019 moved more than twice. That’s an improvement from the previous year but it’s still worse than 2015, when the number was 25 percent.
Children are also shifting within the system at a rate of nearly eight moves per 1,000 days, or roughly three years. That, too, is better than 2018, but it’s still nearly double the national standard and worse than it was four years earlier.
“It’s one of the most detrimental impacts on a kid,” said Lyons, of Friends of Children. “If you’re a child that’s moved eight times, 10 times, 20 times — it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Since January 2017, the state said it has seen a net gain of more than 300 new foster families, leaving it with 2,297 foster homes, plus 2,036other so-called kinship homes, where a foster child stays with a relative. But that has come as 2,350 foster families have stopped accepting placements between then and Nov. 1.
Spears attributes that, in part, to an increase in adoptions and guardianship petitions. She said the department is also prioritizing the use of kinship care, which generally helps kids feel more comfortable and stable.
“We think all of those things are going to help us increase placement stability,” she said.
Susan Elsen, a child welfare policy advocate who sits on the data working group, called the report a good first step. But she said that the group, which has a five-year life cycle, will continue pushing to produce better data, including on how DCF is delivering services to keep kids safe at home and out of foster care.
“We have our work cut out for us for the next three years,” said Elsen, of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
The report also delves into problems beyond foster care. Less than 56 percent of students in foster care graduated high school within four years in 2018, well below DCF’s goal of 67 percent.
Foster children graduate at a lower rate than the general population, as they often move from school to school and suffer chronic absenteeism. But the shortfall points to the need for better communication between DCF and education officials, said state Representative Denise Garlick . It echoed a state audit released last year which found that poor communication and conflicting regulations create educational delays for foster children.
“This is another example of data highlighting the issue but it doesn’t solve the problem,” said Garlick, a Needham Democrat serving as House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s point person on improving the foster care system.