BOSTON (7/9/2020) – Representative Denise C. Garlick joined their colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed An Act relative to accountability for vulnerable children and families, to improve accountability for the children and families served by the Commonwealth.
Building on the House of Representative’s steadfast commitment to the children and families served by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), this legislation addresses the needs of children and families that have also been amplified by the COVID-19 public health crisis and illuminated through the lens of racial equity. Specifically, this legislation strengthens certain 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 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.
Representative Denise C. Garlick (D-Needham) Vice Chair of the Ways and Means Committee and leader of the Caring Collaboration for Vulnerable Children and Families said, “I share the grave concerns about the precipitous drop in child abuse and neglect reports during the COVID-19 crisis, which we believe is because the children, usually interacting with mandated reporters including their educators, coaches, early education staff and childcare providers have not been ‘seen.’ With this bill, the House has demonstrated that we have not lost sight of the children, DCF’s accountability and the Commonwealth’s responsibility.”
The legislation addresses the needs of 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 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;
- School districts to report on the number of students who did not participate in a form of remote learning, including students with open DCF cases; and
- Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to develop a statewide plan to ensure effective engagement relative to remote learning for 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 with social workers conducting client and collateral contacts.
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 present the 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 to jointly and simultaneously to the governor, attorney general, speaker of the house, and senate president.
Data Reporting Initiative. In response to serious events and concerns, the Legislature has requested DCF to complete various reports. Due to a myriad of issues, DCF has been unable to fulfill its statutory requirements to complete all reports. This bill streamlines DCF reporting requirements to ensure timely and relevant data is presented in both a comprehensive annual report as well as robust quarterly reports. In addition, DCF will be required to detail actions 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.