New Reports Show Massachusetts Failing to Protect Children in Foster Care

Children’s Rights: Thousands of young lives endangered due to lack of oversight within child welfare agency

(Boston, MA) — A massive review of Massachusetts foster care shows that nearly one in five children who have been in state care for at least two years have suffered confirmed abuse or neglect — all while in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), according to one of five reports issued by independent child welfare policy experts and released today by national advocacy group Children’s Rights and local counsel.

“Far too many children in Massachusetts remain at risk of maltreatment even after they enter the protection of the state’s child welfare system,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights. “These new reports further underscore the critical need to overhaul DCF as it fails to meet its moral and legal duty to keep kids in foster care safe from further harm.”

A report that reviewed case files of more than 480 children shows that DCF is failing to meet its own policies and performance targets. The findings are consistent with federal studies that rank Massachusetts among the bottom 10 child welfare systems in the United States when it comes to ensuring children are safe in foster care and have stable placements.

Additional reports issued today examined the day-to-day performance of DCF. These in-depth studies show that the state’s foster care system is harming children as a result of systemic dysfunction in several key areas:

  • DCF social workers are not consistently making required monthly visits to children, violating DCF policy and federal standards. DCF workers fail to make more than a quarter of the monthly visits to children required under federal law and DCF’s own policies.
  • More than 25 percent of approved foster homes do not receive required annual reassessments or license renewals in a timely manner, and nearly 15 percent of new kin placements do not receive timely home studies to assure safety.
  • DCF has not developed an adequate contract monitoring system to supervise and assess the performance of private child placement agencies or private institutional living facilities despite the fact the state refers approximately 60 percent of children in foster care to such placements.
  • DCF is among the bottom 10 systems in the nation when it comes to keeping children in stable placements; and studies conducted in 2011 reveal that children in state custody are shuffled between foster homes at extremely high rates. Two named plaintiffs had more than 20 placements and three others had between eight and 12 placements.
  • The agency falls in the bottom third of foster care systems in the country when it comes to finding permanent homes for children in a timely manner.
  • Among a sample of children who entered care sometime between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010, more than 18 percent who were reunified with their parents reentered DCF care due to repeat abuse or neglect.
  • Among a sample of children in care more than two years, more than 50 percent were administered one or more psychotropic medications.

“DCF prescribes powerful psychotropic drugs to foster kids while it has not even developed a system to monitor the medical records of children in state care,” said Lowry. “This is just one example of how a lack of oversight within the agency is endangering thousands of young lives while DCF management continues to defend its dysfunctional child welfare system.”

The five experts who conducted the studies have extensive backgrounds in their respective fields of child welfare policy, social work, organizational management and child and adolescent psychiatry. Their independent reports include:

  • A Management Report analyzing DCF operations that finds structural deficiencies across many key areas. The report is authored by Cathy Crabtree, who served for eight years as Assistant Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and two and a half years as Associate Commissioner for the Alabama Department of Mental Health.
  • A Review of Named Plaintiffs’ Case Files which studies five of the six named plaintiff children and finds thatDCF fails to meet minimum practice standards. The report is authored by Lenette Azzi-Lessing, MSW, Ph.D, a professor of social work at Wheelock College. Dr. Azzi-Lessing was a social work practitioner for nearly 30 years in Rhode Island.
  • A Psychiatric Report finding that DCF fails to adequately monitor the administration of powerful psychotropic medication to children entrusted to its care. It is authored by Christopher Bellonci, MD, a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the senior psychiatric consultant at the Walker Home and School in Massachusetts.
  • A Safety Review of the DCF safety net finding holes in the agency’s performance on special investigations, licensing, contract monitoring and related safety practices and authored by Arburta Jones, former Executive Director of the Division of Central Operations in the New Jersey Department of Children and Families from 2006 to 2008 and Chief of Staff of the New Jersey Office of the Child Advocate from 2003 to 2006.
  • A Case Record Review assessing the files of 484 randomly drawn child case files, finding that DCF fails to meet legal, regulatory, and policy standards across a variety of case practice areas. The study is conducted by the Children’s Research Center, a non-profit social research organization and a division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Children’s Rights, with Boston law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, filed the lawsuit known as Connor B. v. Patrick in April 2010, charging DCF with failing to meet constitutional requirements and its legal duty to ensure the safety and well-being of children in its custody by routinely placing them in dangerous and unstable situations once removed from their parents’ care.

The lawsuit asserts that children in Massachusetts suffer abuse in foster care and bounce from one foster home or institution to another at alarming rates. Also, a high percentage languish in foster care for years, and ultimately age out of the system without permanent families or the skills needed to live as independent adults. The lawsuit links these problems to DCF’s failure to effectively manage its workforce, resources, and practices.

On January 4, 2011, U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor rejected Massachusetts officials’ efforts to block abused and neglected children’s access to federal court by denying a motion to dismiss the federal case. Less than two months later, the judge ruled that the lawsuit may proceed as a class action on behalf of the approximately 7,500 abused and neglected children in state custody. A trial is set for January 21, 2013.

The lawsuit filed in 2010 named six children as plaintiffs to represent the class who at the time ranged in ages from 9 to 15 years old and shared a history of harm in DCF custody. They included:

  • Nine-year-old Connor B., who suffered sexual abuse as DCF shuffled him between seven different foster homes in three years. Connor struggles with severe mental, behavioral, and emotional challenges as a result.
  • Adam S., 15 years old, who was severely beaten in a residential treatment facility. DCF failed to provide him with a permanent family and gave him no preparation for living independently as an adult.
  • Camila R., 13 years old, who was separated from her two sisters and returned to her abusive mother, has lived in at least 11 different placements while in foster care. DCF denied her vital educational and mental health services.
  • Fifteen-year-old Andre S., who has been legally free for adoption for over 10 years and spent seven of 12 years in the state’s care in a residential facility rather than a foster placement or relative’s home.
  • Seth T., 13 years old, was bounced between five foster placements in his first sixteen months in foster care.DCF has effectively cut Seth’s ties with his family, arranged visits with his brothers only a few times a year and never properly explored the possibility of placing him with relatives.
  • Fifteen-year-old Rakeem D., was not only immediately separated from his three siblings, but also denied the opportunity to live with relatives who may have been able to care for him. As DCF has moved Rakeem through at least eight different foster and group homes, his education and behavioral health has suffered.

More information about Children’s Rights’ campaign to reform the child welfare system in Massachusetts can be found at the Massachusetts Class Action Page.