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.
“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 structure in Massachusetts, the first significant myth begins with the children themselves:
Children Have a Strong and Effective Voice In The Child Welfare System
In FY2021 43,343 children, youth, and young adults were involved with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). More than 14,780 children, youth, and young adults were in DCF out-of-home care (DCF Foster Care Review Report FY 2021).
That’s enough children to fill 227 school buses.
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 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.
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.
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 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 partners with EOHHS to provide direct services (see the OCA’s e-newsletter)?
- 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 not calling out for greater DCF transparency?
- 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.
- If the OCA is not addressing the consistently poor performance metrics regarding children and youth involved with the system? (see Failing our Kids)
- 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).
We believe the OCA, which was established as an oversight office, must prioritize the safety and well-being 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, and the results indicate 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 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.
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 current formal session (2021-2022) ended 31 July 2022 with no indication thus far of legislation to address the actual issues plaguing the MA child welfare system.
The Legislature has increased the DCF budget significantly over years of DCF reforms ($1.2 billion in the FY2023 budget; an increase of >$368 million (45%) since 2015), 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 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 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. A Data Work Group final report has not been submitted to the Legislature as of November 2022. 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 have been 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?
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 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.
We believe the current situation violates both transparency and the expected impartiality of the role.
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). 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. 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 2021-22 the OCA hired a consultant to conduct national research and observe DCF foster care reviews; the assessment, plan, and results have not been made public.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 that can be implemented:
"Why are we removing kids when we have nothing for them?"
Former DCF social worker
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?
Address DCF operational dysfunction – bring in a child welfare/management turnaround team to stabilize and support this troubled organization.
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.
Examine and consider a child welfare system where protective investigations/surveillance 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
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. 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.
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 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 actual 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.