Children can have a range of experiences in foster care. Legislation proposed this week in the Massachusetts House would require the state to search for every possible family member with whom a child could be placed before entering the foster care system.
The bill would hold the state Department of Children and Families responsible for pursuing every permanent family arrangement for a child in hopes of keeping them out of the foster care system if possible.
According to a July headcount, there are nearly 9,600 young people in foster care in Massachusetts. That’s 1,500 more than five years ago. Many are victims of violence and negligence, substance abuse and poverty.
State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, the bill’s sponsor, says Berkshire County has the state’s highest percentage of children in foster care.
“You know, there is a lot of poverty is Berkshire County,” Farley-Bouvier says. “We have a serious opioid epidemic in Berkshire County – those are all high risk factors.”
The bill, which the Pittsfield Democrat defended during a Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities hearing Tuesday, includes bringing children into the conversation about their future to discover their preferred custody placement.
The hope is to avoid removing a child from their school, medical provider and community.
It will also require a clinical team to review a child’s physical, mental and emotional health after having more than two placements in a single foster care episode. Children sometimes go in and out of the system.
“The department has made great progress in reducing workloads of caseworkers,” Farley-Bouvier says. “But then we needed to stabilize the workforce because for a couple of years, or several months, there was such a high turnover of social workers and that seems to be settling down as the department stabilizes.”
In June, the Committee heard about two other Farley-Bouvier bills.
“One is a foster parent’s bill of rights,” Farley-Bouvier says.
That legislation would give foster parents a voice in the system, giving them information pertinent to a child’s care, including behavior, family background, health and placement history.
“And the other bill is to create an independent foster care review commission,” Farley-Bouvier says, “and so instead of having foster care reviewed within the department it would take that function outside of the department.”
The bill heard on Tuesday in a way does that, too, by increasing the courts’ oversight of DCF’s performance of “its obligation to make reasonable efforts to keep children in their own homes or a new permanent home.”
In recent years, DCF has faced criticism, including from Gov. Charlie Baker, over high-profile deaths of children under the agency’s care. The state has since implemented reforms.
The state auditor this week found that the child welfare agency has failed to adequately report crimes against children to police, noting 260 serious injuries to children that caseworkers were unaware of.
“We want to recruit more foster parents, which we sorely need,” Farley-Bouvier says.
Farley-Bouvier says Berkshire Children and Families is the only Berkshire County agency contracted by DCF to care for foster children. Two organizations that serve children placed in foster care, D.A.R.E. and Mentor, have closed satellite offices in the county in the last decade because of the lack of available foster homes.
“So we work to recruit and train and license foster parents to work with children with more specific and maybe more high-end needs,” Berkshire Children and Families Vice President Stephanie Steed says. “It’s kind of a problem in two folds: if we have the most foster kids by percentage in the state, we certainly don’t have the numbers to match that need in terms of our foster parents, so then it becomes a question of where are these children placed – where do they live and where do they get the best care in order to make some improvements, possibly move home or possibly make other permanent connections.”
At least two children are referred to Berkshire Children and Families a day. It serves about 52 children a year in an area west of Worcester – 18 of whom are from the Berkshires. Steed says chances are high that Berkshire children are being placed in one of the 3,900 licensed foster homes outside the region.
Rachel Branch is a foster parent in North Adams. She ran for mayor in October.
“I never had children and I saw an ad in the paper and I applied. I did respite care, intensive foster care for children who have been traumatized by violence or sexually assaulted. I didn’t know what intensive – the distinguishing feature, I didn’t know what that meant. These were children, and I have 23 children come through my home,” Branch says. “The most meaningful thing I have ever done in my life. And there is such a need for foster parents. These children need love, protection, care, and you know to be supported.”
All Committee recommendations to the Legislature are due in February.