In Op-Eds & Columns, Updates from Jo

By Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Jo Comerford

When we learned of David Almond’s death on Oct. 21, 2020, we were heartbroken. Tragically, this was not the first time we had seen a child die while under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Yet the report following David’s death, published by the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) in March 2021, was largely similar to prior OCA reports regarding deaths in DCF care. It contained oft-repeated recommendations for more training but no real plan for necessary change.

The acute, systemic problems at DCF are well-understood and demand immediate, systemic solutions for the safety and well-being of the children and families involved with the Department, and as a measure of respect for its tireless workforce. These solutions must be grounded in independent oversight, transparency, and accountability.

DCF is responsible for ensuring the well-being of all children in its care; helping children to thrive and leave the system better off than when they entered—never worse. However, too often the system fails to protect the very children it is charged to serve.

Foster care serves children by providing stability and support. But in Massachusetts, the average placement lasts 23.4 months and 38% of children are placed in four or more homes. The time in the system and numbers of placements are significantly higher than national averages and higher than our neighboring New England states.

The size and complexity of the issues facing DCF make small fixes insufficient. That is why we have proposed system-wide transparency and oversight through independent Foster Care Reviews with our bills H.211/S.88 An Act establishing the Massachusetts Foster Care Review Office. These legislative proposals would separate the Foster Care Review process from DCF and ensure that the child is at the center of each decision. Further, the legislation mandates the Foster Care Review process issue recommendations for case improvement, collect data on care and outcomes for children, and establish an interdisciplinary council to resolve particularly tough issues.

Federal and state law requires a foster care review of every child in a DCF placement with the purpose of measuring progress toward resolving the difficulties that initially led to the child and family’s involvement with DCF. The review should ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and youth in DCF’s care. In Massachusetts, these reviews are currently conducted every six months by a unit internal and under obligation to DCF.

Forty out of the 51 states including Washington D.C have a foster care review process independent of their DCF or child welfare department. These states have recognized that it is impossible for a child welfare agency to adequately and objectively assess its own performance, target structural issues, oversee remediation, and call attention to the resources needed for the care of the most vulnerable among us.

In the Commonwealth, District Attorneys Andrea Harrington, Joseph Early, David Sullivan and Rachel Rollins, the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the Children’s League of Massachusetts, and several other prominent Massachusetts organizations and individuals support this critical reform.

In David Almond’s case, DCF held six foster care reviews. Six. That was six times DCF had the opportunity to acknowledge critical, life-threatening issues and intervene to protect David. The last review occurred on October 14, 2020. Despite the family not appearing for this last review, the Foster Care Review panel found “that [the caretakers] were meeting all the children’s needs in the home.” David died seven days later.

“Inexplicable” was how the OCA characterized DCF’s work in the David Almond case.

“Inexplicable” was also at the center of DCF Commissioner Spears’ comments during an initial press conference, as reported in the media.

We must reject an inexplicable status quo. Back in 2019, when we spoke together at a hearing on independent Foster Care Review, the Child Advocate spoke against independent Foster Care Review noting that she needed more time to work with DCF to implement the 2018 proposed changes. Now, again, we have nothing more than incremental changes proposed in the wake of another tragedy. We respectfully suggest to the Child Advocate and the Baker Administration that the children of the Commonwealth are out of time.

What are we waiting for?

State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier represents the 3rd Berkshire District; State Senator Jo Comerford represents Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester districts.

Read this in MassLive, in CommonWealth Magazine, and in The Berkshire Eagle.

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