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Report: Mass. DCF Has Made Positive Strides, But Foster Kids And Parents Still Suffering

Two bills at the Massachusetts Statehouse aim to address problems for children and foster families in the state’s child welfare system.

Reporter Shira Schoenberg with The Republican and MassLive has been on this story. She's written a number of articles detailing challenges at the Department of Children and Families, which is charged with caring for the state's most vulnerable kids.

Shira Schoenberg, The Republican: These are children who have had to be removed from their homes, for reasons of abuse or neglect, essentially because their parents, or parent, can't safely take care of them. They're put into either a foster home, or a group home or some other setting.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: It sounds like once they get into this system, it's chaos for the children — no permanency, no stability. It's also tough for the folks who are providing homes for these kids in this situation. What did you find in the course of your reporting?

I think "chaos" is a really good word to use to describe it.

For children — there's a real problem that a lot of these children have no path to permanency. Maybe they're not free to be adopted, or for whatever reason, they can't be adopted. They often just get bounced around from one home, to another, to another — from one school system to another. And that's just a really difficult way to go through your childhood, and become a successful adult.

And then, what I found, was for the foster parents who are willing to take these children into their home, some of whom are looking to adopt these children, there's just a lot of problems, and bureaucratic challenges of dealing with the Department of Children and Families.

Parents were telling me about things that should be basic. Kids are getting dropped off without sufficient medical records. They weren't getting told about court dates, or what the result was of a court hearing.

And they really just were saying that, you know, they weren't told basic information. They felt like they weren't being respected by DCF, and weren't seen as really part of the team that's helping these kids.

How many kids are involved in the DCF system in Massachusetts?

There's about 10,000 children at any given time in the system in out-of-home placements.

Does this, as a broader issue, shock you? There have been years of work put into this system. Additional employees have been hired. New infusions of money have gone into fixing the DCF system. This is the system that, just a few years ago, found itself in the headlines with high-profile deaths of children like Bella Bond and Jeremiah Oliver, yet that hasn't really manifested into a functional system.

I think that the investment has made a difference. You do talk to the department, the independent child advocate, and they say that the department has more social workers. They're doing things like medical checks that weren't being done for a while.

They've kind of put together the basics: We are now more able to adequately protect children, ensure they're safe. And to their credit, what they say they are focusing on is going a step further. You know, we have the social workers, we have the staff. We are hopefully keeping these children safe. Now we're going to look at how we can move these children towards permanence — improve our relationships with the foster parents, recruit more foster parents.

Over the course of your reporting, what struck you the most in some of those interviews?

I think what really stuck with me was speaking to some of these adults who grew up in the system. Because personally, I can't imagine going through the trauma that some of them have gone through.

One woman was telling me about how she was trying to run away from her foster homes to be with her siblings — how she tried to kill herself.

And then just the little things. A woman told me she carried all of her belongings in her pockets until she was 20 years old because she didn't have a mother or a father to tell her she should carry a purse. So these kids are really being deprived of their childhood, and that's a big problem.

What did you find people said the price the children will pay for inconsistency in an education, for the lack of support systems and the lack of social structure?

I think, unfortunately, that's pretty clear from the statistics, that children who age out of foster care without family have increased rates of incarceration, of drug addiction, of unwanted pregnancy, sexual assault, homelessness.

As one of the advocates I spoke to said to me, they're the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

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