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Child’s story underscores need for overhaul of DCF

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is supposed to be a child welfare agency. But the story told in “Innocents Lost” (Page A1, Aug. 25) demonstrates that DCF regularly functions as a child destruction agency.

Governor Baker took an important first step in reforming DCF four years ago, when he eliminated its differential response program. This two-tier system assigned a significant percentage of child maltreatment cases to a voluntary track, with no prior investigation of the seriousness of maltreatment. Under this approach, parents were free to walk away from any protective supervision. Differential response has been shown to put children at risk, and several states have eliminated it for this reason.

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But Kay Lazar’s Globe story illustrates why this step is not enough. DCF needs a total overhaul. Keeping abuse cases on the traditional track, where DCF can require that parents engage in rehabilitative services, and can remove children at risk to foster care and adoption, will not help if DCF fails to act as needed to protect children.

The agency’s actions in this case were not an aberration. DCF regularly puts parents first. It regularly gives biological parents endless chances to prove that they are capable of parenting in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are not. It regularly ignores the child’s need for nurturing care now, not in some imagined possible future. It regularly removes children from damaging homes only to return them, repeatedly. It regularly denies children the loving adoptive homes waiting for them. It regularly inflicts so much damage on children that, if eventually they are placed in adoption, it may be too late, as it was for Marie, in Lazar’s story.

Baker needs to follow through on his administration’s promising first step by instituting fundamental reform at DCF.

Elizabeth Bartholet

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Cambridge

The writer is a professor of law and director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School.

Agency tries to do right in the moment — that’s part of the problem

I thank Kay Lazar for her recent reporting on young Marie’s experiences in the foster care system. As a foster parent and the founder of a foster care support and advocacy organization, I see these bureaucratic and systemic failures daily. Each decision the state Department of Children and Families makes seems reasonable, justified, or inevitable in the moment, but I don’t often see a step back to look at the bigger picture and the agency’s cumulative impact on the children we are trying to protect. More important, I don’t see anyone looking ahead to think about how to prevent crises from happening in the first place.

As a result of the overtaxed child welfare system and a lack of foster homes available, social workers are laser-focused on making sure children are safe in the moment, without the ability or willingness to think about how best to poise them for success tomorrow, next month, or next year. This is why so many foster parents wonder whether the trauma inflicted by the system might be worse than the trauma their foster children would have experienced had they remained in their birth parents’ care. Too much of the time, many foster parents believe the answer is yes.

Marianna Litovich

Founder and board president

All Our Kids Inc.

South Hadley

Tortuous path strays far from best practices for kids’ mental health

Kay Lazar does an excellent job of documenting how interventions by the Department of Children and Families and other agencies can aggravate children’s problems. When stable caregiving that anchors children’s development is not prioritized for youngsters like Marie, their mental health deteriorates. Children lacking secure attachments tend to show high levels of emotional and behavioral reactivity, learning difficulties, and strained relationships with peers and caretakers that persist into adulthood.

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DCF’s decision to remove Marie from numerous homes and, especially, from her pre-adoptive family in Florida to seek “intensive” trauma treatment in Massachusetts, flies in the face of decades of research on attachment, trauma, and mental health treatment for children. Children’s ability to benefit from treatment is enhanced both when they live in stable environments and when their caregivers are involved in the therapy. No seasoned psychotherapist would have recommended the course of action taken in this case.

When the systems that are supposed to protect children instead stunt their development and mental health, it is time to rethink how we structure and deliver those services.

Karen Zilberstein

Northampton

The writer is a local clinical director with the national foster-care community organization A Home Within.