There are heroes who work with foster families and children in Massachusetts and are on the front line of caring for children at risk and I met one of them recently. She related her daily experiences of witnessing deplorable conditions in most foster homes where the standard of protection for children is food, clothing and something to sleep on. There are no standards of good quality versions of these. She related also how some legislators and most of the public believe in the fantasy that foster homes are protective havens where love and social integration are liberally applied to children who have been abused, abandoned or at risk in a number due to being victims of neglect, victims of crimes or may have a propensity to escape both their families and the foster care network. Her current case load is 18 on-going and assessment cases. Bear in mind though that case loads are measured by household where there are typically more than one child, so all told this worker is charged with the responsibility of monitoring 60 children.
Increased public awareness on how we care for our most vulnerable children is essential in light of Department of Children and Families controversial and most disturbing failure as a public agency.
It is believed that social workers allegedly lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who has not been seen since September and is presumed dead.
In light of this, recent call for reform is essential.
The most critical aspect of reform is case load. Recommendations for a maximum of 12 assessment cases and 17 on-going cases is a start, and the only way to work towards this goal is to apply adequate funding to hire up to 2500 new case workers. However, I interject that a maximum child-count should be considered also; perhaps between 30-40 maximum. Enabling social workers in the field with tablets and smart phones so that they can take photos of children at risk for flight and be able to update and monitor records in real time in the field will help break the current cycle of information processing on each case which is subject to lapses in information and timeliness of reporting. Finally, child medical screenings within 72 hours of placement followed by a full examination within 30 days is an important, protective component
Governor Patrick has recently asked the Child Welfare League of America to review the agency that is initiating a lot of the recommendations just mentioned; but in perhaps the most critical area of all, DCF must immediately implement controls over the selection of individuals who are granted foster care sponsorship. The organization has recommended that there should be heightened home visitations and monitoring for foster homes where individuals have a felony background or have been granted waivers.
This idea is unacceptable and falls far too short to protect children.
The agency should adopt proposals from national groups such as American Bar Association that establish standards of barring individuals from serving as foster parents if they have felony convictions for child abuse or neglect, have committed crimes against children or other crimes such as spousal abuse, rape, sexual assualt, or homicide. This standard is lacking in Massachusetts, and therefore no increased number of social workers, technological enhancements or field policy changes can help overcome the specter of danger facing many children when they are in the care of dangerous persons.
Reform is difficult for any public agency, especially when it is under intense public scrutiny such as the DCF is. But such reform is essential and rehabilitation of the agency must begin now. We have a responsibility as a society to remove the most vulnerable children from dangers associated with abandonment, abuse, neglect and as victims of both red tape and people that are predisposed to harm them when they are in their care.