FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE July 10, 2020
Natalie Higgins, Natalie.Higgins@mahouse.gov, 978-227-5278
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES BOLSTERS COMMITMENT TO CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
Legislation targets accountability and analysis amidst COVID-19 and racial equity crises
BOSTON – Representative Natalie Higgins (D-Leominster) joined her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in passing An Act relative to accountability for vulnerable children and families, which strengthens the laws ensuring the safety and well-being of the Commonwealth’s youngest and most at-risk residents.
Building on the House of Representatives’s steadfast commitment to those served by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), this legislation addresses the needs of vulnerable children and families that have also been amplified by the COVID-19 public health crisis and further illuminated through the lens of racial equity. Specifically, this legislation strengthens 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.
The legislation addresses the needs of at-risk 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 alarmingly 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:
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 more promptly with social workers conducting client and collateral checks.
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 report any 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, jointly and simultaneously, to the governor, attorney general, speaker of the house, and senate president before the agency in question.
Data Reporting Initiative. In response to serious events and concerns about children in DCF care, the Legislature has historically directed DCF to complete various reporting requirements; however, the agency has been unable to fulfill its statutory requirements to complete all reports. This bill updates and streamlines DCF reporting requirements to ensure the delivery of timely and relevant data in both a comprehensive annual report and robust quarterly reports. In addition, DCF is required to detail actions it has 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.