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25 Investigates: Thousands of Mass. kids spending most of their young lives in limbo with DCF

WFXT Boston 11/23/2022 Kerry Kavanaugh

25 Investigates found thousands of Massachusetts’ youngest and most vulnerable children are spending years of their lives in limbo.

Of the 8,176 children in the care of the Department of Children and Families, 5,083, or 62%, are classified as in “continuous placement,” according to March 2022 Department of Children and Families [DCF] data obtained by 25 Investigates.

Continuous placement is the time starting when a child is taken into the care of DCF until their case is closed with a permanent placement, which could be with their biological parents, with a guardian, or through adoption.

Anchor and Investigative Reporter Kerry Kavanaugh started asking DCF for these numbers back in June. We wanted to know how many children have been in the system without a permanent placement for at least 18 months and the age range of those children. That’s something DCF tracks, but they don’t explicitly publicize it in quarterly reports.

After exchanging a series of emails and sending several public records requests to the Department over several months, we found 509 children ages 0-2 have been in the DCF system for 1 to 2 years, according to data as of March 31st, 2022.

283 children ages 0-2 have been in the system for 2 to 4 years, essentially their entire lives.

For kids ages 3-5, 259 of them have had open DCF cases for up to 2 years. 565 children ages 3-5 have been in the system 2-4 years. 107 children ages 3-5 have been in more than four years.

398 children ages 6-11 have been in the DCF system for more than four years.

DCF provided data as of March 31, 2022 © Provided by WFXT Boston DCF provided data as of March 31, 2022

That’s hundreds of babies, preschoolers and kindergarteners only knowing the unknown.

Subtitle 1: The Consequences of Children Living in Limbo

25 Investigates started looking into this because of the case involving missing New Hampshire girl, Harmony Montgomery. The 5-year-old girl spent nearly her entire life in the care of DCF before a judge sent her to Manchester, NH to live with her father, the man now charged with her murder.

Harmony entered DCF custody when she was just two months old.

“Harmony spent the majority of the next four years of her life in foster care,” said Massachusetts Child Advocate Maria Mossaides during a news conference in May when she released her report into Massachusetts’ handling of Harmony’s care and protection case. “The result was significant reported trauma and harm to Harmony in the early years of her life,” she added.

Kavanaugh later interviewed Mossaides about children in continuous placement and pointed out there are hundreds of young children spending years in the system right now, just like Harmony.

“You’re really looking at cases in which very difficult decisions need to be made,” Mossaides said.

She says when Massachusetts is trying to determine what a child in DCF custody needs to be safe and to thrive, it’s a delicate balancing act between parents’ constitutional rights to raise their children and the state’s rights to protect them.

Mossaides says courts and DCF aim to conclude these cases within 18 months, a longstanding federal standard. But it’s rarely met due to a myriad of complicating factors.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted court procedures and they’re still catching up. The opioid epidemic is leaving parents battling addiction.

“You’re trying to make a decision about permanency for the child, but also recognizing that you need to give the parents an opportunity to get better,” Mossaides said. “And that puts people who work in child welfare in a really difficult position.”

Subtitle 2: A child’s safety and wellbeing

Mossaides has been calling for an examination of how much consideration a child’s safety and wellbeing gets in care and protection cases.

“I think that there is now a big push to say, when a child comes into custody under the age of one, we need to be thinking more in terms of a monthly review of the case, rather than waiting six months,” Mossaides said.

“What we really could do is not tamper with parents’ rights, but increase children’s rights and make them enforceable,” said victims’ rights advocate and attorney, Wendy Murphy.

Murphy, who teaches at New England Law Boston and is Director of the Women’s and Children’s Advocacy Project, says better timelines still won’t matter if children don’t have more explicit rights in these court proceedings.

Kavanaugh showed Murphy the data she obtained from DCF.

“When you see hundreds of kids between the ages of 0 to 5 that have been in the system for years, what does that say to you,” Kavanaugh asked.

“You can get away with mistreating children because not a lot happens when you fail children,” Murphy said. “Years pass, that child could be damaged for life.”

Massachusetts trial courts declined to do an interview with 25 Investigates. A spokesperson shared a statement about actions they’ve taken surrounding care and protection cases.

“Based in part on recommendations by the Office of the Child Advocate and based on a review of court policies and practices that relate to the timely placement of children, the Trial Court formed a working group comprised of Juvenile Court judges and key partners in care and protection proceedings including the Department of Children and Families, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Office of the Child Advocate. The working group has had four meetings and is focused on working towards systemic changes that improve safe and timely legal permanency for children.”

The spokesperson for the trial courts said the first working group meeting was held on 9/1/22 and the group meets about every 3-4 weeks.

Kavanaugh also asked to speak with the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Linda Spears, about the number of children living in continuous placement. The Department declined to make her available for an interview.

A DCF spokesperson sent the following statement:

“Since 2015, the Department of Children and Families has implemented reforms that have increased annual adoptions by 38% and strengthened permanency policy and practice. Finding a permanent, safe and loving home for a child is a multi-faceted process that involves DCF, the legal community and the courts. The courts are responsible for scheduling all hearings and determining all custody decisions, including the termination of parental rights and the finalization of adoption. DCF’s role includes identifying a family that can meet the child’s needs, participating in the resolution of legal issues, and receiving the court’s ultimate custody decision. The Department has been a member of a court-initiated process to improve the timely permanency for children.”

DCF says it has instituted a number of permanency-related initiatives including the creation of a new, dedicated unit of permanency social workers who will be assigned to each DCF region to review cases, standing, bi-monthly meetings with internal legal and social work teams to review pending adoptions and address any identified barriers to finalization, and ‘Permanency Roundtables’ to review the cases of older children without an identified adoptive family.

The Department did not say when these initiatives were created nor if they have shown to decrease the number of children who are living in limbo.

“You try to explain to kids why the delay is happening. But depending on the age of the child, it’s really hard to say,” Mossaides said.

As part of the Child Advocate’s Report into the Harmony Montgomery case, Mossaides asked for lawmakers to convene a working group of stakeholders to study and potentially recommend changes to how child protection cases are handled in Massachusetts. That effort failed during the last legislative session.

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