Data sought to address inequities in children’s services

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Child-serving state agencies would need to create new plans focused on reducing disproportionality and inequity in services, under new legislation that advocates say would create consistent data points and definitions across a number of state entities.

The bill (H 228 / S 139) was filed by Reps. Natalie Higgins and Jack Patrick Lewis and Sen. Susan Moran and considered during a Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee hearing Wednesday morning.

“[The bill] is really looking to collect the data, as we’ve heard from so many folks testifying before, to inform a corrective action plan when it comes to disproportionality of DCF interactions with families in our commonwealth,” Higgins said during the hearing. “In my district, the Fourth Worcester District, which is a gateway city, we have seen time and time again disproportionality at the front door when it comes to low income families, families of color, families experiencing homelessness.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Children and Families, which is a focal point of the legislation, declined comment, saying the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

An Office of the Child Advocate report covers a range of issues including statistics on the level and types of involvement children in demographic groups have with the state entities, the number of children in low-income families involved in each child-serving agency, and short- and long-term outcomes of that involvement, among other things.

The bill requires OCA to produce the report one year after the legislation is passed, update it annually, and submit it to the governor, health and human services secretary, House and Senate chairs of the Children, Families, and Persons with Disability Committee, and Trial Court chief justice.

And, based on the findings of the OCA report, each of the child-serving state entities would have to publicly produce a “corrective action plan” that identifies and implements policies and practices for reducing disproportionality and inequity. The report would be submitted to OCA for review.

The Department of Children and Families does produce annual and quarterly reports on children and families receiving services that includes data on child fatalities, gender identity and sexual orientation of children in placement, and reasons children exited foster care.

Tammy Mello, executive director of Children’s League of Massachusetts, said the 2021 Q3 report showed families that identify as Hispanic or Latinx were 3.3 times, Black families two, Hawaiian Pacific Islanders 1.8, and multiracial families 3.1 times more likely to get involved with the agency than their white counterparts.

“What this information tells us is simple: families of color are being reported to DCF here in Massachusetts, at much higher rates than white families,” Mello said, adding that “state agencies, particularly within different secretariats, track different sets of data, make different sets of data available, may have major gaps in data, and quite frankly, use different definitions of the data that they collect, which makes the analysis impossible.”

One example of a step in the right direction, Mello said, is the Master Data Management system used by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services that “recognized the need for improved capacity to match records across agencies for service delivery and resources purposes.”

“We need more consistent data across systems including medical, personnel, schools, courts, law enforcement,” Mello said. “We need consistency in data points and definitions, and the ability to analyze that data across systems to understand where to target efforts.”

Sandra McCroom, president and CEO of Children’s Services of Roxbury, said families who work with her organization “continue to be hurting.”

“I think that H 228 and S 139 can begin to help address that, to be able to identify and understand what is happening, why children of color are being disproportionately represented and continue to be in state systems,” said McCroom, who previously served as undersecretary of criminal justice in former Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration.

Rosalind Baker, director of the Framingham Family Resource Center, said gathering data from state agencies working with at-risk children and families will allow the state to examine practices that promote systemic differential treatment and foster bias.

“Families are not defined by their interactions with any one agency or by one kind of societal change,” Baker said during the hearing. “The intersectionality of issues puts minority families at an exponentially greater risk of disproportionately harmful treatment when they come into contact with DCF and the juvenile courts or another agency.”

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