This week, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed An Act relative to accountability for vulnerable children and families, which strengthens the laws ensuring the safety and well-being of the Commonwealth’s youngest and most at-risk residents.
Recent reports from Department of Children and Families (DCF) show that reports of child abuse to the DCF have declined by approximately 50 percent. Clearly, COVID-19 and this pandemic have not cured incidents of abuse, but rather have hampered the ability of mandated reporters to evaluate many at-risk children in our Commonwealth.
Toward that end and building on the House of Representatives’ steadfast commitment to those served by the Department of Children and Families, this legislation addresses the needs of vulnerable children and families that have also been amplified by the COVID-19 public health crisis and further illuminated through the lens of racial equity. Specifically, this legislation strengthens DCF policies and operations, develops a tool to retain and recruit foster families, holds DCF accountable for timely, accurate and relevant reports, and clarifies communication by the Child Advocate to the Legislature and state officeholders. The legislation compels the use of data to analyze the impacts of remote learning on all children during the COVID-19 crisis with a focus on understanding the disparate educational impacts on children served by DCF. Additionally, the bill calls for a public service campaign to increase awareness of child abuse and neglect.
The legislation addresses the needs of at-risk children and families through five major initiatives:
Measuring the Impact of COVID-19. The public health pandemic has exacerbated concerns regarding all children across the Commonwealth, particularly those served by DCF. Since the declaration of the state of emergency on March 10th, reports of abuse and neglect have alarmingly decreased 51%, while home removals have dropped 60% over the same period of time.
In order to best understand the effects of the state of emergency related to COVID-19, this legislation requires DCF to report on various aspects of the child welfare and education system during the state of emergency. Specifically, the bill requires:
- DCF to report monthly to the Legislature on changes in child abuse and neglect cases;
- DCF to implement a public information campaign to improve awareness of child abuse and neglect during the public health crisis;
- DCF to report on efforts to support the foster care system;
- DCF to analyze the effect on virtual and video technology on services during COVID-19;
- Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to work with DCF to provide an analysis of active remote learning participation rates during the COVID-19 crisis, including participation rates of children with open DCF cases; and
- DESE to coordinate with DCF to develop a statewide plan to ensure effective and ongoing engagement relative to remote learning, including guidance and best practices for engaging the most vulnerable and at-risk students and families.
Quality Improvement. The House of Representatives remains committed to ensuring accountability related to critical incidents that result in a fatality or near fatality, while also reviewing those critical incidents that are highlighted by systemic weaknesses.
This bill installs certain safeguards, including requirements for DCF to review the case transfer policy to improve protocols for complex cases, and create a managerial review in reunification decisions. It also requires social services programs to communicate more promptly with social workers conducting client and collateral checks.
Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights. Concerns of uncertainty regarding the rights of foster parents and the responsibilities of DCF related to training and processes have been intensified by COVID-19. This bill requires DCF to create a Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights outlining the relationship between the department and foster parents. A clear articulation of the rights of foster parents and the responsibilities of DCF will increase confidence and trust and is designed to retain and recruit foster families.
Strengthening the Integrity of the Office of the Child Advocate. The Office of the Child Advocate is statutorily required to ensure the highest quality of services and supports are provided to safeguard the health, safety, and well-being of all children receiving services across the Commonwealth. This bill requires the Child Advocate to report any findings of critical incident reports that result in the death of a child due to a reasonable belief that a state agency failed in its duty to protect a child, jointly and simultaneously, to the governor, attorney general, speaker of the house, and senate president before the agency in question.
Data Reporting Initiative. In response to serious events and concerns about children in DCF care, the Legislature has historically directed DCF to complete various reporting requirements; however, the agency has been unable to fulfill its statutory requirements to complete all reports. This bill updates and streamlines DCF reporting requirements to ensure the delivery of timely and relevant data in both a comprehensive annual report and robust quarterly reports. In addition, DCF is required to detail actions it has taken to provide culturally competent services to children and families and report on transition planning, fair hearings, reports made to the Ombudsman, and a detailed accounting of services provided through contracted agencies.
The bill now moves to the Senate.