We had a very difficult winter. The snow never seemed to stop. Can you imagine the outrage Massachusetts residents would have shown if the Legislature had decided that it would save tax dollars by making the cost of snow removal discretionary? Schools would close, people would be prevented from going to work, the economy would grind to a halt, and, sadly, some people would die due to unsafe conditions on the roads.
Luckily for all of us, snow removal isn’t optional. Every year, we keep residents on the roads regardless of what it costs. Our elected leaders would get an earful otherwise.
Consider now the case of the Department of Children and Families. Although keeping vulnerable children alive and on the path to self-sufficiency should be too important to be considered discretionary, each year this work is subject to cuts by the governor and the Legislature. And the constituency most affected is not, as in the case of snow removal, tech entrepreneurs, soccer moms and others with the means and knowledge to let their outrage be heard on Beacon Hill; it is abused and neglected children who have no voice, no vote, and no lobby. Neither are their families equipped to influence the state budget, a daunting prospect for even a civically savvy resident.
As a result of our collective decision to make the money allocated to help our kids thrive subject to the whims of fortune and competing priorities, DCF has been slowly bled dry and its infrastructure dismantled over the last several years. It is now at a starvation point, and is no longer capable of fulfilling the basic protective services function of its mission. Helping these children integrate into their communities and forge successful lives seems increasingly out of reach.
Even with all of the focus on DCF given the resignation of DCF chief Olga Roche, the House refused to address the agency’s underlying problems, which the Legislature is uniquely positioned to fix through the budget process. Rather than restoring $131 million in cuts to the agency since the economic downturn of 2008, when caseloads rose, the House allocated an increase of little over $323,000 to its bottom line. In addition, a budget amendment designed to fund community-based Family Resource Centers, which would directly benefit children in crisis by providing much-needed mental health, substance abuse, and violence prevention services to their families, did not garner enough support to pass.
If it’s true that the annual budget is an accurate reflection of the state’s priorities, it is clear where our abused and neglected children, and their families who need support, rank.
Our Commonwealth has always been at the forefront of advocating and caring for the weakest among us. In the absence of major changes to the way we structure our child welfare system, and the investment to back it up, we are sure to lose that historical edge. We must get serious about creating an organization that learns from its mistakes and takes positive steps to prevent tragedies in the future.
Compare the reaction of DCF in the wake of a catastrophic failure to that of the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency also tasked with preserving public safety. When a plane goes down, we don’t demand the resignation of the head of the FAA and hope that the threats to air safety will go away. Rather, we expect that the FAA has invested heavily year to year in quality assurance. We are confident it will launch a full-scale investigation after a crash and then learn from the tragedy, make vital changes in policy and fully fund the implementation of those changes.
We know that things will change at all levels of the organization and industry. Funding is never the first concern. By contrast, DCF, with its anemic investigative unit and eviscerated administration, simply does not have the resources for analyzing tragedies and implementing changes in order to prevent future heartbreak.
The next time you find yourself angry at failures at DCF, consider how demoralizing it must be for the social workers who bear all of the pressure of keeping kids alive and healthy but get no support — not from the internal structure of their organization, not from the Legislature, and not from us, the public. Real money has to be invested in our children. Real money is needed to hire adequate social work staff. Real money has to be appropriated for technology more advanced than fax machines.
In the meantime, no matter how qualified the next commissioner is, he or she will never be able to change no money into real money.Maria Z. Mossaides is chair and Erin G. Bradley is executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts.