Ben Downing: Foster Care

May 9, 2019

Kay Lazer’s recent series in the Boston Globe on the Massachusetts foster care system is equal parts heartbreaking and maddening. It should be a call to action and a reminder that the impact of public policy decisions can be felt for years after the fact.

Stepping back from the series, we can see four trends coming together to strain the state’s child welfare system: the opioid crisis, 25 years of budget cuts, state government’s inability to deploy technology efficiently, and fewer families signing up to serve as foster parents. The combination of these trends is creating a lost generation of children. We cannot accept that, especially when the solutions to avoid it are within our grasp.

While much of the discussion about the opioid epidemic focuses on the good news of declining overdose deaths, DCF continues to deal with addiction rendering too many parents unable to care for their kids resulting in too many homes that are unsafe for children. The number of children in foster care has increased by almost 20% since 2014, surpassing 9,200 children this year. Lazer’s series describes children born addicted; and children dealing with emotional and physical trauma of being born into homes with an addicted parent or parents.

As the challenges kids bring to the foster system rise, state government has fallen short in managing them. Massachusetts prides itself on being a tech and innovation leader. Yet the state agency charged with protecting our most vulnerable population does not have the ability to deploy relatively simple technology to track the progress and needs of those it serves. That is an embarrassment. Absent technology that gives all foster parents, school districts and other caregivers, a complete picture of why and how a bewildered, scared child has arrived at their door, the trend of declining foster parents will continue. State government should follow through on its constant call “public-private partnerships” and engage the tech sector in solving these issues. Doing so can and should make it easier for well-intentioned people to become foster parents and ensure a safe transfer of data for children between caregivers.

Despite recent increases, DCF has been asked to do more with less for decades, all while dealing with children who bring more and more complex issues to the system. The current status of the foster care system shows how the impacts of year upon year of budget cuts compound finally to create a crisis. Kids aren’t provided the support they need, foster parents are left to fend for themselves and social workers see their caseloads grow and support shrink. All to preserve tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

Every child in Massachusetts deserves a chance. Our current system is not providing that to all children. As a community we need to lend a hand to the hard working social workers and foster parents and demand better. Our hope and goal should be to not need the services of the DCF. But knowing that goal is far from being reached, the Department should operate in a manner that shows the children, foster parents and social workers in it that they have our unlimited supporting in ensuring every kid in Massachusetts has the opportunity to make the most of their gifts. We cannot say that today and it should be our top priority to change that.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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