IT HAS BEEN five years since the remains of Jeremiah Oliver, 5, were found in a suitcase on the side of a highway, and four years since the body of a little girl was found in a plastic bag on Deer Island and ultimately identified as 3-year-old Bella Bond.
Those heartbreaking stories of children who fell through the cracks of the Department of Children and Families prompted Governor Charlie Baker to promise major agency reform. With support from the Legislature, funding for the Department of Children and Families has increased. To reduce caseloads, there are more social workers, and virtually all are licensed.
But DCF still faces challenges, from glitchy computers to poor retention of foster families. It’s encouraging that the state House of Representatives is stepping up its oversight of the agency. Yet ensuring the agency solves its problems is a shared responsibility of Baker and the Legislature.
Much-needed pragmatic fixes have fallen short, particularly involving the department’s overwhelmed foster care system. As reported by the Globe’s Kay Lazar, social workers are still scrambling to find emergency foster placements for children in need. A new after-hours hotline database to track open foster homes that was supposed to be up and running by Nov. 1 now won’t be operational until January. An online service that’s supposed to help foster families communicate with one another and exchange information about the kids they are caring for suffers from annoying technical issues. And foster children still face long waits for mental health therapy.
Amid those problems, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has asked House Ways and Means committee chair Denise Garlick to serve as his point person for improving the foster care system and oversight of DCF. Garlick, a nurse who has led several health-related legislative committees, said her goal is to coordinate House legislative and budget policy efforts. At least 23 House bills have been filed specifically relating to foster care, and part of her mission will be to examine ways to consolidate all those proposals.
In an interview, Garlick said there’s a sense that DCF is moving in the right direction, but “we need to have a proactive plan.” In a statement released by a spokeswoman, DeLeo said, “We need to reinvigorate and refine our efforts — this work didn’t end in the aftermath of Jeremiah Oliver’s or Bella Bond’s deaths.”
Baker has plenty of other challenges, including the fiascos at the State Police and the Registry of Motor Vehicles. It’s also true that fixing DCF is a lot harder than pledging to fix it. Still, it’s difficult to understand how a policy and technology wonk like Baker would allow bad technology to persist as long as it has at DCF. The agency is tracking thousands of kids by spreadsheet; putting in a software program shouldn’t be that hard. The agency can’t even come up with a reliable, accurate list of foster homes that have closed, which would allow it to better understand why foster parents leave the system.
Historically, with child welfare issues, attention spikes when a tragedy occurs. Then it plateaus. The Baker administration has tried to reverse that pattern, and can boast of real progress. But more proactive leadership from the legislative branch is also welcome and needed.