In Massachusetts, Foster Care Reform Clock Ticks Louder and Louder

The clock was ticking long before the 2014 death of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver from Fitchburg, Mass.

It began in 2010 when a nonprofit litigation firm filed a class action lawsuit aimed at reforming the Massachusetts foster care system. It continued ticking in 2013 when a federal judge ruled in favor of the Commonwealth but tasked all of us, as a community, for our role in a devastated and dangerous foster care system.

It has been ticking since several independent evaluations were written, including that of the Child Welfare League of America, the Boston Foundation and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, each offering blueprints for change. And all the while, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) funds were being cut just when the need was at its highest.

Jack Loiselle and Avalena Conway–Coxon are, sadly, only the latest casualties of our broken child welfare and protection system. The state’s history of reform attempts is troubled and well documented.

DCF needs more funding and better management infrastructure to support the almost impossible work of its dedicated social workers. We need meaningful, systemic change to fully address the ongoing problems; the clock on reform must stop ticking.

Last year, Friends of Children, an independent child advocacy organization in Massachusetts, convened a group of citizen advocates from areas across the Commonwealth with vast policy, management and day-to-day experience in the child welfare system. The group interviewed experts from across the U.S. and researched and reviewed models used in other states to promote fundamental change in the Commonwealth’s system of child welfare and protection.

Meaningful change takes time, especially in a large public bureaucracy. But we know that systems don’t change when truths are hidden, and they don’t change without independent oversight, collaborative problem solving and public accountability.

Four key principles – operational excellence and accountability, transparency, external oversight, and citizen involvement – will help safeguard against future tragedies and address dysfunction in the current system. We must take an honest look at how to help DCF workers meet their profound task of providing children with the basic essentials they need to flourish.

Restructuring the state’s current Foster Care Review System (FCRU) is a good first step. States are required to have a “case review system” to assure that each foster child has a service plan that is reviewed at least every six months. This mandate was established to focus on a child’s permanency plan and assess what case-specific concerns are impeding progress towards permanence, how these must be addressed and by whom.

Additionally, annual reports are typically developed by states from data collected through Foster Care Review systems to help inform what works well and to identify systemic areas of concern.

In Massachusetts, DCF houses the FCRU and, in essence, uses a checklist to evaluate itself, creating obvious challenges for independent review, impartiality and accountability. FCRU does not have the authority to ensure that the recommendations of the panel are implemented.

This review process should be reorganized and strengthened. As a first step, it should move from DCF to a truly independent state authority with the power to enforce the panel’s recommendations. Many other states have successfully separated this function from their DCF equivalent organizations.

Information collected from these reviews should provide real-time case specific information and data on systemic strengths and weaknesses, including those that cause imminent, predictable – and potentially preventable – danger. In keeping with federal requirements, an annual report should be available to the public that analyzes ongoing, comparative data related to our foster care children to gain a better understanding of any barriers to permanence, including those that are a result of systemic deficiencies.

Vulnerable children in Massachusetts have lost, over the years, a system of checks and balances that large bureaucracies require to function in the best interests of their clients. Veracity and oversight are the linchpins in all of this and without them, children will continue to pay the highest price.

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About Jane Lyons 2 Articles
Jane Lyons has been a child advocate for over 30 years in Massachusetts. She is the Executive Director of Friends of Children, an independent child advocacy organization based in western Massachusetts.