State Senate Passes Youth Group Homes in the Valley and the Commonwealth

By State Senator Katy Ives – Aug 2017

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Department of Mental Health license youth group homes throughout the state that house adolescents removed from their families. Over the past few years, the City of Haverhill has seen a significant surge in calls from group home staff, which are required to report these youth as runaways if they leave the home or leave from school and do not return to the home. The Haverhill Police Department has been tracking the number of calls, and in 2017, they are anticipating a total of about 700 service calls. I was recently notified of this issue by the Haverhill City Council, which is concerned that these service calls are taxing law enforcement resources.

The increase in calls is partly due to the 2012 Child Requiring Assistance law, which prohibits staff at group homes from physically restraining youth attempting to leave group homes. Additionally, a 2014 federal law requires group homes to promptly report unaccounted-for children to police if they are deemed at risk of human trafficking—as residents of these group homes are. Both of these laws strive to improve child safety, but together, they produce situations where staff cannot physically prevent youth from leaving and must report them missing after about two hours. Though it is required by law, it may not be necessary in all cases for police to get involved right away: often, runaway youth go to the same location, such as a friend or family member’s house, and return shortly after being reported missing. Of course, there are a variety of scenarios, but the common thread is that group home providers and police have very little flexibility to respond in a case by case fashion.

These service calls have put tremendous stress on the police department in Haverhill, as well as other communities in the region. It’s notable that this challenge is not specific to Massachusetts. The question of how to respond to youth that leave group homes is a national one all states are struggling with, and stakeholders are working on strategies to address this challenge right here in the Merrimack Valley.

The Haverhill City Council sought an opportunity to discuss the group homes issue with those involved in the matter. My office facilitated a meeting with our state’s Department of Children and Families, Haverhill group home provider NFI, Haverhill Police, the full City Council, state legislators, and the Mayor’s office, with a goal of finding steps to reduce calls reporting children missing in instances where there is no danger to the child. Some abutters to the group homes attended the meeting as well.

DCF confirmed that the runaway issue is challenging statewide and notes that a small number of residents account for most calls. And it was confirmed that the majority of the children residing in group homes in the Merrimack Valley are from the Merrimack Valley. Nonetheless, the goal is to find appropriate solutions where outcomes are better for children, police, and the community. At the meeting, NFI (the group home provider) and DCF explained how they are collaborating to improve customized “enhanced case management” plans for each child who demonstrates a pattern of leaving the group home. Moreover, DCF is examining ways to increase flexibility in how providers respond to children who have left the premises. They are evaluating policies on the time-frame for required reporting to police, as well as the related issue of whether it makes sense for all children residing at group homes to be categorized by default as at-risk for human trafficking, which requires immediate reporting.

Youth in the DCF system are no longer with their families and endure trauma from exposure to domestic violence, emotional and sexual abuse, homelessness, abandonment, and other reasons.

In recent years, the opioid epidemic has substantially increased the need for foster care homes. This roundtable was a productive step in identifying the problem and working together with all of those involved and impacted. Meeting attendees agreed that a follow-up meeting will be held in October to get updates from the group home provider (NFI), the Haverhill Police Department, and DCF in order to evaluate how these policies are working and whether the frequency of service calls had declined.