House Passes Legislation to Support Vulnerable Children and Families

House Passes Legislation to Support Vulnerable Children and Families

(BOSTON) - Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) and her colleagues in the House passed legislation this week to support vulnerable children and families in the Commonwealth. The bill, H.4841, An Act relative to accountability for vulnerable children and families, reforms the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) data reporting mechanisms, updates some of their practices, establishes a foster parents bill of rights, and evaluates the impacts of COVID-19 on services. 

Specifically included in the final bill were two provisions filed by Representative Meschino. The first, born out of H.148, An Act to provide notice to counsel of changes in a child’s or a young adult’s placement and other events, mandates that DCF notify a child’s attorney in the event of a change in placement, hospitalization, or if a 51A abuse and neglect report is filed that involves the child. These provisions seek to create consistent and meaningful legal advocacy to support children and young adults as they navigate the foster care system. The second provision, filed as an amendment that was accepted into the bill during last night’s debate, would require DCF to track and report the number of requests for translation services that are made annually. This would help ensure that non-English speakers are being given meaningful language access to DCF services.

“This legislation will help support the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children, throughout and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Representative Meschino. “I am proud to have played a role in shaping this bill.”

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:

  • DCF to report monthly to the Legislature on changes in child abuse and neglect cases;
  • DCF to implement a public information campaign to improve awareness of child abuse and neglect during the public health crisis;
  • DCF to report on efforts to support the foster care system;
  • DCF to analyze the effect on virtual and video technology on services during COVID-19;
  • Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to work with DCF to provide an analysis of active remote learning participation rates during the COVID-19 crisis, including participation rates of children with open DCF cases; and 
  • DESE to coordinate with DCF to develop a statewide plan to ensure effective and ongoing engagement relative to remote learning, including guidance and best practices for engaging the most vulnerable and at-risk students and families.

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 neglected 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.