Ten Myths about
Child Welfare Oversight
in Massachusetts

Ten Myths about
Child Welfare Oversight in Massachusetts

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 Department of Children and Families (DCF), 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. These dedicated adults suffer, too.

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 has starkly chronicled in Failing Our Kids: Measures of the Broken Child Welfare System in Massachusetts.

“If we truly matter, why doesn’t the state treat us better?”

Young adult who recently aged out of MA foster care

In the case of the myths surrounding the child welfare oversight system in Massachusetts, the first significant myth begins with the children themselves:

Myth One

Children Have a Strong and Effective Voice In The Child Welfare System

More than  46,736 children, youth, and young adults are involved with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). More than 10,170 children, youth, and young adults are currently in DCF out-of-home care.

That’s enough children to fill 156 school buses. Sixty-four percent (5,408) are children under the age of 11 (DCF Annual Report FY2021).

And yet, despite these staggering numbers … our children have no money, no seats at the tables of our corporate boardrooms or legislative chambers, and no vote.  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 system 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 system, read on.

Shattering myths, we can see the truth.

Myth 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 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 defends DCF positions and protects the status quo?
  • 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? This alarming dysfunction includes six ineffective foster care reviews identified but not examined in the OCA David Almond Investigative Report.
  • If the OCA partners with EOHHS to provide direct services (see the OCA’s e-newsletter)?
  • If the OCA co-chairs a legislatively established Child Welfare Data Task Force (established in 2018) 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?

We believe the OCA, which was established as an oversight office, must prioritize  the status of children and youth in DCF care.

Given that the limited data that do exist indicate that 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, only two well-being measures for children and youth are currently reported by DCF:

  1. medical visits completed and the timeliness of those visits, and
  2. four- and five-year high school graduation rates.

The number of visits completed has declined steadily since 2018 (78% in 2021 from 82.7% in 2019).  The percentage completed in a timely manner was 44.2% in 2021 from a high of 49.15% in 2019 (DCF Annual Report FY2021).

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 was reported as 50.6% in 2021 (DCF Annual Report FY2021).  By comparison, the statewide rate for all students graduating in four years was 89% for 2021.

A young adult seated alone in the dark

Myth 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 and the passage of laws.

No comprehensive child welfare legislation was passed last session (2019-2020).

The Legislature has increased the DCF budget significantly over years of DCF reforms (from $743 million in 2011 to more than $1.1 billion in 2022), 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.

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 2018, 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 chaired by the OCA 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 OCA.  The OCA has publicly stated that the Legislature, shortly after the Commission report became public, provided the OCA with funding to conduct mandated reporter training.

It is unclear to us how the Legislature is measuring the compliance, effectiveness, or impact of budget increases to DCF and OCA and other child welfare requirements mandated by law.

 

Myth 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.

According to the U.S. Ombudsman Association, which is referenced by the National Conference of State Legislatures, an ombudsman is defined as "an independent impartial public offical with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate, or informally address complaints about government actions."

The DCF’s home page does not have an Ombudsman tab, and one must click on a “questions about a case” tab to find Ombudsman information. No data or information are reported regarding complaints to the Ombudsman or their resolution.

We believe the current situation violates both transparency and the expected impartiality of the role.

Myth Six

Foster Care Review Is Impartial and Uncompromised

Unlike most other states, in Massachusetts, foster care review, which is a federally mandated a check and balance on DCF, is actually conducted by an internal department of DCF. The state currently budgets more than $4.5 million for foster care review (MA FY2022 budget, line item 4800-0025).  DCF’s foster care review budget is larger than the OCA budget for FY2022 (line item 0930-0100).  We believe that funding can 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.

An external and independent foster care review provides an opportunity to objectively assess, report, and make recommendations to all relevant stakeholders regarding the well-being and best interests of DCF-involved children and youth.

See Reforming Foster Care Review for more information on the current bills before the MA State Legislature.

 

Myth 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. 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 Eight

MA Juvenile Courts Function as a Watchdog and Have 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 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 Ten

Someone Else Will Fix This

Thinking about child welfare can be 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. 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 that can be implemented:

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 best interests 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 quarterly data from DCF to include, at a minimum, complete information regarding placement, permanency, outcomes, support, and services.

  • Address the quality and quantity of legal representation for children and families involved with DCF.

  • Implement a children’s bill of rights.

  • Examine and consider a child welfare system where protective investigations and child and family support and services are operationally separated; not housed in the same organization. The Agency that removes children from their home should not and cannot effectively be the Agency that provides stabilization and ongoing support services for the child and family.

Actions to Improve Oversight

  • Establish a foster care review office independent of DCF (See Reforming Foster Care Review for more information on the current bills before the MA State Legislature.)

  • 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. 

  • Ensure the Office of the State Auditor is mandated to conduct regular audits of DCF policies, procedures, and operations.

Actions to Improve Transparency

  • Ensure all child welfare forums include voices from overly impacted communities, about racial equity, language minority rights, LGBTQ rights, and disability rights. Advocates for children must also have a voice.

  • Examine the function and effectiveness of the DCF Ombudsman, making this a fully independent office with mechanisms of accountability over DCF.

  • Implement transparency regarding the conversations and decisions made behind the scenes by the Administration, the Legislature, the Courts, DCF, and OCA.  Other stakeholders must be part of this process.

Here’s what you can do

Contact your state representative and senator

  • Let them know that you support independent foster care review (S.88 & H.211) and that you are asking them to support these bills and more effective utilization of the already budgeted state funds for children and youth in out-of-home placement.  Contact can be made through letter (see 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).

  • If your legislator is also on the Joint Committee for Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities ask that they favorably report the foster care review bills (S.88 & H.211) out of the Joint Committee (see Joint Committee chairs and members here).  You can also contact the Joint Committee House and Senate Chairs to express your support and request that they favorably report out the foster care review bills.

Consider speaking out if you have actual experience with the system as a former DCF-involved child or young adult, parent, foster parent, or DCF worker.

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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.”

James Baldwin

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)

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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.

FOC-Logo-Favicon-Web

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.