Children's Advocacy Group Calls Mass. Foster Care Broken

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Fred Bever reported this story.

BOSTON-- A national children's advocacy group says the Massachusetts foster care system is broken. Children's Rights, Inc. filed a federal class-action suit on behalf of some 7,500 foster care kids two years ago, and the group this week released new documents it says detail high rates of abuse and neglect of foster care kids.

But state officials say they are focused on system improvements, and getting results.

Brothers Placed In Separate Homes

Michael Shavies and his siblings were placed in separate foster care homes when he was 13.

"As a 13-year-old child and you're taken away from the people that you live with every day, I was very angry," Shavies says.

"As a 13-year-old child and you're taken away from the people that you live with every day, I was very angry."

Michael Shavies

Now 21 and living in Worcester, Shavies is getting his life together, but he's struggled with homelessness and anger over his family's experience with foster care. It's really about his brother. Shavies says the home where he went was a bad fit, where, for instance, English wasn't the primary language. His brother eventually landed on the streets, where he was murdered.

"Did these people find out if he was a right fit for these parents? Did they even ask my brother what was his thought?" Shavies says. "Now I'm actually angry, because I feel that we could have saved him if he was placed in the right place."

Documents Reveal Systematic Problem

Inappropriate placements, inattention to mental or physical health, frequent moves from home to home or school to school, separated siblings, overburdened caseworkers and poorly trained foster parents. Those are just a few of the systemic problems detailed in the newly released documents.

One woman who will testify on the plaintiff's side says she cycled through at least 13 homes; she can't quite remember them all. But one, when she was a high school freshman, she does remember.

"It ended up being very scary; it was a very neglectful home and I also experienced sexual misconduct, rape and... it was just wretched," the woman says. WBUR is not identifying this woman due to the sensitivity of her allegations.

Children's Rights says after hiring experts to review 480 foster care cases, they found the state's record on neglect and abuse is among the worst in the nation, while it's doing poorly in other areas as well.

Marcia Lowry, the group's executive director, says the lawsuit is a last resort.

Tiles made by at-risk children line the walls of Cambridge Family & Children's Services. (Fred Bever for WBUR)
Tiles made by at-risk children line the walls of Cambridge Family & Children's Services. (Fred Bever for WBUR)

"It takes pressure to get these systems to change," Lowry says. "There's no accountability with regard to these systems, they're not measured to the standards that they themselves set, and when children are harmed in the system, there are no consequences to the administration of the system."

"Well, we already have a legislative mandate and a mandate from Gov. [Deval] Patrick to improve the system," says Angelo McLain, the commissioner of the Department of Children & Families.

McLain appeared with Lowry on Radio Boston on Thursday. He says that while any abuse or neglect of a state ward should not be tolerated, the rate in Massachusetts is below 1 percent, as it is in most states. And he notes that since he became commissioner in 2008, the number of children in foster care has dropped by 2,000. McLain says this is evidence his emphasis on keeping children in their birth homes, or returning them there quickly, is working.

"We've got a mandate from the federal government," he says. "We've got a performance improvement plan that had 14 major points in it. We recently were notified that we had hit those points and made the improvement. We still need to make more improvement, but we do have mandates to make changes and we've been making those changes and we are held accountable for making progress."


Dealing With Budget Cuts

Since 2008, the foster care system has had to contend with a $100 million in budget cuts. Maria Mossiades, who directs the private Cambridge Family and Children's Services, says that while the state maintained an admirable commitment to not laying off social workers, the support staff took a big hit. And, she says, the state's compensation for foster parents hasn't increased much over the last decade.

"These really are special people who are willing to offer this service to all of us as a community in the commonwealth," Mossaides says. "I mean obviosuly resources would allow us to recruit more, and make it easier for foster parents to take on this role."

Similar suits in other states have brought more resources to bear, also forcing more transparency and formalized measurement of foster care outcomes. Although some say they also created more bureaucracy, paperwork and some measure of self-protective behavior by system workers.

All in the debate agree that helping the state's most vulnerable children find stability is very, very hard. But for the young woman who spent most of her life in foster care and never felt safe, the system must be reformed and refocused.

"When you take a child out of their family, you create a wound in their heart," she says. "You can picture it as cutting open their heart. You need to treat is as seriously as a surgical operation. You need to put in place the things that will allow that child to thrive and feel comfortable."

She's 24 now, older than kids still in foster care who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But she plans to testify on their behalf. The case is scheduled for trial in mid-January.

This program aired on August 24, 2012.


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