By June Ameen, Policy Director at Friends of Children and Joan Montgomery Halford, writer, with the assistance and expertise of Kate Lowenstein, Multisystem Youth Project Director at Citizens for Juvenile Justice.
Broken systems often endure until the light of truth shines unflinchingly upon them.
Armed with the truth, we can take action to effect real change. In the case of the Commonwealth’s Child Welfare System, we believe myths have served as a smokescreen behind which a failing system persists—much to the detriment of the thousands of children in its care.
Sadly, within this system, many skilled professionals, from social workers to administrators, toil relentlessly despite the pervasive systemic failures that thwart their ability to effectively help the children for whom they are responsible.
Myths about child welfare in Massachusetts are dangerous for the young people involved with DCF—dangerous because their very lives, physical safety, and mental health are at stake. We have fallen into a terrible cycle of periodic reaction to child deaths and repetitive and ineffective solutions, as Friends of Children and Citizens for Juvenile Justice has starkly chronicled in "Failing Our Kids: Measures of the Broken Child Welfare System in Massachusetts".
"Improvements in the system must come through the normal state political processes. The problems are now for the Governor and legislature of Massachusetts to resolve."
Dec. 15, 2014 - US Court of Appeals, Connor B. Opinion
(page 3, after acknowledging the harms of DCF)
In the case of the myths surrounding the child welfare oversight structure in Massachusetts, the first significant myth begins with the children themselves:
Myth Number One
Children and young adults involved with DCF have strong and effective voices at child welfare decision-making tables as life-changing decisions are made for them
In FY2022, 43,457 children, youth, and young adults were involved with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). 13,045 children were in foster care during FY2022 (DCF Annual Report FY2022).
13,045 children fill 567 school classrooms.
And yet despite these staggering numbers…our children’s voices are silent, they have no vote, and they have no money to get them a seat at the table. They are voiceless. From time to time, a figurehead group, a documentary, or a newspaper article will make their situations known, and yet, the day-to-day reality—as they struggle to stay well in our broken system—is that they are utterly dependent upon us to help them.
To understand the remaining myths about child welfare in Massachusetts, see a visual depiction below of the current formal oversight of the MA child welfare system.
What follows may, at first glance, look like a functional structure with oversight through checks and balances. It is not. Take a look at the diagram, and then read the "Myths" beneath it.
The "Myths" may completely upend what you thought you knew about the care of our most vulnerable children.
Now that you’ve glanced at a visual depiction of the current MA child welfare oversight structure, read on.
Shattering myths, we can see the truth.
Myth Number Two
The Department of Children and Families Is Held Accountable Through Multiple Governmental Checks and Balances
Formal oversight of the Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts is a function of the executive branch, namely the Governor. DCF is but one agency of the largest state secretariat, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), and DCF is accountable to the Governor only through the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The Governor appoints the Secretary of EOHHS.
The Governor appoints the DCF Commissioner.
The Governor, in agreement with the Attorney General and the State Auditor, also appoints the Child Advocate.
The Governor appoints Juvenile Court judges, who serve with no limit other than mandatory retirement at age 70.
Apart from the Governor and EOHHS, in practice, other apparent accountability mechanisms for DCF have no authority over DCF.
Myth Number Three
The Office of the Child Advocate Provides Independent Oversight of DCF
The Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) holds oversight responsibility to make certain that agencies serving children are fulfilling their obligations--namely, to ensure that children and youth served by the child welfare system receive timely, safe, and effective services, and to safeguard their health, safety, and well-being (OCA website).
The law establishing the OCA is very specific regarding the office’s duties to ensure, examine, investigate, review, report, provide recommendations, and receive complaints. This is a tall order. We believe this law creates a watchdog function. The law does not ask the OCA to be directly involved in or to oversee operations, which are the responsibility of the respective agencies. OCA issues reports as a form of accountability, but there is no enforcement arm.
We must ask how the OCA can serve in its intended independent oversight and watchdog function:
- If the OCA is not addressing the consistently poor performance metrics regarding children and youth involved with the system? (see "Failing our Kids")
- If the OCA continues to recommend policy and training reforms in investigative report after investigative report without calling out the systemic operational dysfunction at DCF?
- If the OCA has not asked for, or published, outcomes for children, young adults, and families following all the policy change recommendations made in the OCA reports?
- If the OCA co-chaired a legislatively established Child Welfare Data Task Force (established in 2017) that did not fully meet its mandate?
- If the OCA chaired the legislatively established Mandated Reporter Commission (2019) that did not meet its mandate and was unable to make any recommendations?
- If the OCA is the only public opposition to an independent foster care review office/process? This position did not change in response to the six ineffective foster care reviews identified but not examined in the OCA David Almond Investigative Report and the five reviews identified in the Harmony Montgomery Investigative Report but not examined; neither Report offered an assessment or recommendations regarding foster care review.
- When the Child Advocate, in response to Friends of Children letter of concern (August 2022) regarding children and young adults in DCF custody sleeping in DCF offices and the ongoing and persistent problem with placements, responded in a defensive and accusatory manner. (Read the Child Advocate’s email response, and Friends of Children's subsequent follow-up).
If the OCA is truly an oversight office it must prioritize the safety and well-being of children and young adults involved with the child welfare system by addressing the documented harms and long-term impact experienced by children and young adults in its care ("Failing our Kids").
Given the limited data that do exist indicates many children and youth are worse off after involvement in the state’s child welfare system, why isn’t the OCA laser-focused on outcomes and accountability?
For example, from 2019 to 2021, DCF reported only two well-being measures and those results consistently indicated children and youth are not doing well:
- medical visits completed and the timeliness of those visits, and
- four- and five-year high school graduation rates.
The percentage of required medical visits completed has declined steadily since the highest reported in 2019 (76.7% in 2022 from 82.7% in 2019). The percentage of medical visits completed in a timely manner was 42.6% in 2022 from a high of 49.7% in 2020 (DCF Annual Report FY2022).
DCF’s target is for 67% of youth in DCF care to graduate from high school in four years. DCF’s four-year graduation rate is reported as 56.7% in 2021 (DCF Annual Report FY2022). By comparison, the statewide rate for all students graduating in four years was 89.8% for 2021.
DCF’s Annual Report FY2022 includes three additional education well-being measures indicating children and youth in DCF custody did not do well during the 2021-22 school year:
- 84.8% of children in DCF custody were identified as “high need” students, in contrast to 56.2% of all MA students.
- Children in DCF custody attended 86.8% of their enrolled school days, versus 91.5% for all MA students.
- Children in DCF custody had more in-school and out-of-school suspensions and emergency removals than all MA students.
The report does not include an analysis or indication of what DCF has learned from these well-being data points, nor any indication of what DCF is doing to address these poor results for children and youth in the custody of DCF.
The OCA’s mission is to “ensure that children receive appropriate, timely and quality state services, with a particular focus on ensuring that the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable and at-risk children have the opportunity to thrive.” (OCA website)
By its own definition, DCF acknowledges that well-being goes beyond timely medical checks, or simple academic metrics. It includes “healthy social, physical, and emotional functioning of children and their families. Safe, stable and nurturing relationships between children, their siblings, and the adults who care for them…….shaping how their physical, emotional, social, behavioral, and cognitive capacities will progress - all of which ultimately affect their health and functioning as adults.” (DCF Annual Report FY2022)
Current public DCF data neither addresses nor answers all the critical questions related to the broader array of well-being (thriving) indicators. This is a glaring error in oversight of, and transparency in, our child welfare system. How do we know that we are actually helping or harming anyone?
Myth Number Four
Our State Legislature Maintains Strong Oversight of DCF
Although the charter for The Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities of the Commonwealth’s Legislature states that it “oversees” DCF, in actuality, the Committee has limited power or authority over DCF other than budget allocation, the passage of bills, and the ability to call public hearings.
No comprehensive child welfare legislation was passed in the last two legislative sessions (2019-2020 and 2021-2022).
The Legislature has increased the DCF budget significantly over years of DCF reforms ($1.2 billion in the FY2023 budget; an increase of 45% since 2015, and 62% since 2012), yet MA continues to perform poorly on critical measures (as reported in "Failing Our Kids"), and we still lack many important outcome measures about the well-being of children and youth impacted by the child welfare system.
In 2017, the Legislature established a Child Welfare Data Task Force (MA FY2018 budget Chapter 47, Section 128) with a clear list of goals related to data, information, reporting, and outcome measures. This Commission was co-chaired by the OCA and the DCF Commissioner and did not include critical community voices on racial equity, the harmful and dangerous experiences of DCF-involved LGBTQ youth (MA Commission on LGBTQ Youth Report), and disability rights. The Data Task Force dissolved in February 2022 without completing critical components of its mandate. For many years, prior to the establishment of the Data Task Force, DCF did not meet reporting requirements that were established by state budget language and enacted state laws. There were no repercussions.
In 2019, the Legislature established the Mandated Reporter Commission to review the mandated reporter law and regulations for child abuse and neglect, and to make recommendations on how to improve the response to, and prevention of, child abuse and neglect. Eighteen months later, after a preliminary recommendation to vastly expand mandated reporting in MA, and a forceful public outcry and pushback, the Commission was unable to make any recommendations to the Legislature. This Commission was chaired by the Child Advocate. The Child Advocate has publicly stated that the Legislature, shortly after the Commission report became public, provided the OCA with funding to conduct mandated reporter training.
After the 2020 death of David Almond, 14, at the hands of his father and his father’s girlfriend, the Office of the Child Advocate Investigative Report indicated significant and systemic operational dysfunction at DCF – yet these same problems have been outlined in reports over many years and were supposedly previously addressed with policy changes, operational expansions, and budget increases.
In 2022, the OCA released the Investigative Report, A Multi System Investigation Regarding Harmony Montgomery in response to a New Hampshire missing child report that led to public information regarding this child’s involvement with MA DCF and Juvenile Court. The report indicates findings about DCF that are consistent with those of the Almond Investigation – basic and persistent operational and management deficiencies. However, the OCA recommendations focus on judicial and legal issues identified while indicating the DCF issues were addressed by DCF in its response to the Almond Report recommendations.
It is unclear how the Legislature is measuring compliance, effectiveness, or the impact of budget increases to DCF and OCA, policy and procedure recommendations made in the myriad of investigative reports, and other child welfare requirements mandated by law. Is the Commonwealth appropriately overseeing our investment of $1 billion to DCF and millions more to the legal and judicial systems?
Myth Number Five
An Independent Ombudsman Addresses Complaints Against DCF
In Massachusetts, the child welfare Ombudsman, who is not publicly named, is an employee of DCF—the very agency the Ombudsman is charged with investigating for complaint reports.
The U.S. Ombudsman Association indicates a “classical Ombudsman functions in government to receive and investigate complaints. The irreducible minimum characteristics include:
- Impartiality and fairness
- Credibility of the review process
The DCF home page does not have an obvious Ombudsman tab. Instead, one must scroll down the page and click on the “Concerns about a DCF case” box (or access it from the "I want to..." drop down at the top of the page) to find Ombudsman information. No data or information are publicly reported regarding complaints to the Ombudsman or their resolution.
This structure flies in the face of accepted standard practice of the impartiality of the role.
Myth Number Six
Foster Care Review Is Impartial and Uncompromised
Unlike most other states, in Massachusetts, foster care review, which is a federally mandated check and balance on DCF, is actually conducted by an internal department of DCF. The state currently budgets more than $4.9 million for foster care review (MA FY2023 budget, line item 4800-0025). Can this funding be more effectively utilized to fund a process independent of DCF and EOHHS?
The Office of the Child Advocate has continuously challenged independent foster care review without clear and publicly explained opposition. In 2018, in response to the first filing of a bill, the OCA was involved in DCF operations to implement foster care review “reforms.” Yet, the assessment, plan, success measures or results have not been made public. In 2022, the OCA hired a consultant to conduct national research on foster care review and observe DCF foster care reviews. In June 2022, the OCA submitted a letter to the Chairs of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities reviewing OCA involvement in DCF foster care review beginning in 2018. The consultant’s memo (referred to in the OCA letter as a “summary of her findings”), highlighted a number of key issues not addressed in the letter to the Legislature. For example, the memo states “In approximately 50% of the reviews, it was not evident that the length of time that a child had been in care and the effect of that time was having on the child were being discussed during the discussion about permanency/goals for a child." In both documents, it is unclear how effectiveness of foster care review is defined or measured.
Over the past six years (three legislative sessions) the Child Advocate has been the only public opposition and has convinced Legislative leadership that independent foster care review is not needed in the Commonwealth.
An external and independent foster care review provides an opportunity to objectively assess, report, and make recommendations to all relevant stakeholders regarding the safety and well-being of DCF-involved children and youth.
See "Reforming Foster Care Review" for more information.
Myth Number Seven
The Union Represents Social Workers But Doesn’t Influence The Child Welfare System
Without any official oversight role over child welfare in Massachusetts, SEIU local 509, which represents DCF social workers, holds heavy sway over DCF policies, procedures, and operations. DCF, policymakers, and Legislators frequently point to the Union as a potential obstacle to change. While professional organizations certainly have a part to play in protecting workers, SEIU local 509 must be recognized as the strong EOHHS and DCF influencer that it truly is.
Myth Number Eight
MA Juvenile Court Functions as a Check and Balance and Has the Last Word Regarding Children and Youth in DCF Care and Custody
MA Juvenile Court judges make decisions regarding custody of children and youth, termination of parental rights, adoption, and guardianship. However, due to several MA Supreme Judicial Court cases, the legal standard to overcome DCF’s decisions is very high, and Juvenile Court Judges in MA have a limited check on DCF’s actions.
Judges appoint attorneys (public defenders) to represent children, youth, and parents when the Court has granted custody to DCF. The Juvenile Courts suffer from a dearth of public defenders. Further, many concerns exist regarding the quality of the defense and support children and families receive from their assigned attorneys–and the timeliness of required hearings.
Myth Number Nine
Federal Funding Means Strong Oversight of DCF
Although the federal government provides funding, collects and reports data, and conducts periodic reviews of how DCF functions (Child and Families Services Review), the only remedies imposed in response to these periodic reviews are performance improvement plans.
In terms of the ability to take strong action to improve state-level child welfare, we have not seen the federal government intervene.
Myth Number Ten
Someone Else Will Fix This
Thinking about children and youth in our child welfare system is painful. The individual stories, and the stories most likely to hit the news, can be disturbing. And the current system, which is complicated, is badly broken. For each of the extreme cases that garner media attention, including child deaths, many thousands of unnamed children suffer in situations that will never see the light of public scrutiny.
We need to understand that, as citizens of the state, the Department of Children and Families represents each of us in the care of our vulnerable children. DCF is our proxy, and we are responsible.
Each of us must take action to make life better for the thousands of children affected by the child welfare system in Massachusetts. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
We cannot do right by the children, youth, and families we force into this system unless we demand these basic components of an adequately functioning system. Without this degree of transparency, what assurances are there that we have the right resources in adequate supply at the right time? Anything less than a child welfare system with adequate oversight, transparency, and accountability is a violation of human rights and social justice.
We must take action.
In the long-term, we recognize the need to fully examine and redesign the Commonwealth’s child welfare system.
In the short-term, we propose a number of actions:
“If we really matter, why doesn’t the state treat us better?”
Young adult who recently aged out of MA foster care
Actions to Improve Accountability
Require that the Department of Children and Families, a > $1 billion organization, incorporate serious checks and balances, and accountability for its failures, as a component of the enormous responsibility we bestow upon it. We must demand adequate data and outcomes information, changes where failures appear, leadership prepared for the challenge, and a culture focused on the safety and well-being of children, youth, and families. The results and the history of performance we chronicle in "Failing Our Kids: Measures of the Broken Child Welfare System in Massachusetts" would not be acceptable in the private sector. Why do we accept such results for our most vulnerable children? Why do we continue to try to fix operational dysfunction with policies and training? What is preventing the current oversight structure from acknowledging and addressing the actual challenges?
Require that data be intersectional for a child’s/young adult’s whole identity including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), disability and language.
Require quarterly data from DCF to include, at a minimum, complete information regarding children/youth removed and why, families involved with DCF and why, placement, permanency, outcomes, support, and services.
Address the quality and quantity of legal representation for children and families involved with DCF.
Ensure issues with the judicial system/process are clearly identified and addressed in a timely fashion.
Actions to Improve Oversight
Examine the independence and watchdog mandate compared to the actual functioning of the OCA.
Ensure the system has mechanisms to enforce child welfare mandates and laws and to develop expertly designed metrics to assess effectiveness.
Actions to Improve Transparency
Ensure all task forces, commissions and any other child welfare forums include representation from impacted communities including racial equity, language minority, LGBTQ, and disability rights. Parents, former foster children/youth, foster parents, former DCF employees and advocates must also be at the table.
Examine the function and effectiveness of the DCF Ombudsman, making this a fully independent office with mechanisms of accountability over DCF.
Ensure that Massachusetts’ public records law applies to the Legislature, Judiciary and Governor’s Office, allowing greater access to information regarding decisions made.
Here’s what you can do
Contact your state representative and senator
Let them know that you support Friends of Children’s proposed short-term actions to ensure an adequately functioning child welfare system and refer your Legislator to this report. Contact can be made through letter (download our sample), email, or call.
Let your legislators know that you believe the Governor, the Legislature, and the Courts should be subject to the MA public records law, an issue currently garnering public attention (Boston Globe 2/7/22).
Consider speaking out if you have experience with the system as a former DCF-involved child or young adult, parent, foster parent, or DCF worker.
Share this page with others, including through social media.
Share directly from your browser or simply copy and paste the link into a post with your own words on why this is important to you and the children of Massachusetts.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Learn more about our work to improve child welfare in Massachusetts
Failing Our Kids: Measures of the Broken Child Welfare System in Massachusetts
Oversight: Reforming Foster-Care Review Through Independence from the Department of Children and Families (DCF)
Make a Difference!
Join our network of volunteers and professionals working to pass important legislation to improve the lives of children and youth in the foster care system in Massachusetts.
Make a Difference!
Join our network of volunteers and professionals working to pass important legislation to improve the lives of children and youth in the foster care system in Massachusetts.