Approximately 34,000 children in Massachusetts are involved with the Department of Children and Families (DCF, the state's child welfare agency) at any given time. Families who end up in the child welfare system are among the state’s most vulnerable families, with numerous challenges and complex needs. These families and children are predominantly low income; they are disproportionately families of color; and there is often a history of mental illness, abuse and/or trauma (e.g., 58% of DCF cases for children ages six months to 2 years old involved households that experienced domestic violence).
MLRI’s Family Law and Child Welfare unit works with state officials, policy makers and other advocacy groups to promote policies and practices that are family-centered and achieve outcomes most favorable for the low-income children and families. Maintaining the continuity of the family and ensuring that families have the support services and assistance they need for children to grow and succeed in a safe, stable and nurturing environment are the cornerstones of our advocacy.
Until now, the state has not had strong independent child welfare advocacy (i.e., advocacy that is not hindered by contracts with DCF or other state agencies). In recent years, MLRI has emerged as the state’s leading independent child welfare advocate and agency watchdog.
Stabilizing Families and Protecting Children by Reforming the MA Child Welfare System:
The highly-publicized Jeremiah Oliver tragedy has focused much needed attention on the MA child welfare system. By focusing the attention of policy makers on weaknesses in DCF and resources needed to ensure the safety of children under its supervision, this tragedy provides an opportunity to advance long-needed systemic reforms to the state’s child welfare system and to underscore the need for adequate DCF funding and a coordinated multi-agency system of care. At the same time, advocacy is urgently needed to ensure that DCF does not abandon its strengthening families approach which focuses on providing services to keep children safely with their families whenever possible (numerous studies have shown that separating children from their families is traumatic and results in long-term negative effects).
MLRI, with its impressive history and track record of administrative agency reform, is uniquely positioned to advance recommendations and subsequently advocate for the necessary balance of strengthening families and enhanced protection of children. We have assembled and will convene a high-level advisory committee of local and national child welfare experts in the spring of 2014 who will work with MLRI to develop recommendations for systemic DCF reform.
Monitoring Implementation of DCF’s Fair Hearing Regulations:
MLRI has taken the lead in advocating for greater transparency and accountability within the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) with respect to its administrative practices and allocation of resources. In January 2014, as a direct result of MLRI’s advocacy over several years, DCF overhauled its fair hearing regulations to ensure that its hearing system is “timely, independent and fair.” This is the first major step towards reforming a hearing system that has been so plagued by delay and biased standards and procedures that it effectively had denied families their due process right to challenge high stakes decisions that altered the course of their children’s lives. We will build upon this success by monitoring and ensuring DCF compliance with the regulations.
Promoting the Placement of Children with Kinship Caregivers:
MLRI's primary child welfare focus is ensuring that low-income families have the support, services and assistance they need to raise their chidlren in a safe and stable environment. In those instances where a child must be temporarily removed from his or her biological parents, MLRI advocates for policies that encourage placement with extended family and reunification, when possible, of children and parents.
In circumstances where parents are unable to care for their children on a long-term or permanent basis, MLRI works to ensure that all possible efforts are made to identify and support extended family members who can provide the care children need, rather than immediately turning to foster placement with someone the child doesn’t know or to other residential care. Kinship caregivers often enable children to remain within their families in an environment that nurtures their cultural and linguistic heritage, prevents their separation from siblings, and allows them to maintain relationships with their biological parents as appropriate. In recent years, MLRI successfully advocated to include in our state budget language requiring our child welfare agency to support kinship care.
MLRI, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center and with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is currently researching and writing two policy briefs assessing the progress Massachusetts has made on increasing, strengthening and reducing racial disparities in kinship care for children involved in our child welfare system, and identifying what remains to be done. We will also develop a blueprint for advocacy in order to chart a course towards bringing about those policies which will best support and promote kinship care in Massachusetts.
Supporting Children by Stabilizing and Supporting their Families:
MLRI’s work on behalf of low-income children and families is not limited solely to the efforts of our child welfare advocate. The issues that affect children and families reach across the spectrum of MLRI's poverty law fields. MLRI supports the Commonwealth's most vulnerable children by advocating for policies that provide low income families with economic stability, safety, and access to basic human needs. Some examples of our cross-substantive advocacy include, e.g.,
•Protecting children affected by domestic violence in private custody and visitation cases;
•Increasing the availability of materials and support services in other languages for non-English speaking parents and kinship caregivers;
•Preserving access to emergency shelter for homeless families with children;
•Ensuring children and families are able to access to TAFDC, SNAP (Food Stamps) and free school meals;
•Protecting the rights of immigrant children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected to receive a green card through the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status;
•Ensuring that all low-income and vulnerable families have access to affordable, quality health care.