House approves bill updating child protection laws

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – A popular child protection bill that fell through the cracks last legislative session is gathering momentum in the new session.

Last July, the House and Senate each unanimously approved similar versions of the bill, but it slipped off the Beacon Hill radar screen in the ensuing five months. It briefly surfaced on the session’s last night but Democrats were unable to agree on details, leading to disappointment among its supporters.

“We’re happy that this bill is coming forward,” Rep. Paul Donato, a Malden Democrat who credited Reps. Denise Garlick and Tricia Farley-Bouvier for their work on the bill, told the News Service on Monday after the House revived the bill, passing it over to the Senate.

House leaders last week said that despite investments and reforms to address caseloads, licensing and technology, “persistent systemic issues remain” in the state’s child welfare system and have been exacerbated during the pandemic. They said they interpreted a drop in 51A abuse and neglect reports during the pandemic as a sign that more children and families are at risk, and that more needs to be done to “avoid any preventable tragedies.”

Last May, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins cited a “large decline” in calls reporting child abuse and neglect over the first several weeks of the pandemic and said at the time that “we know that’s not true.” With schools and much of public life shut down at the time, children were missing the “eyes and ears and love” of teachers and other mandated reporters of abuse, she said.

Without discussion or debate, the House on Monday approved legislation (H 88) establishing a “bill of rights” to help recruit and retain foster parents, and transferring the child fatality review team from the chief medical examiner’s office to the Office of the Child Advocate.

The bill also requires the Department of Children and Families to create or update case management policies in the areas of collateral checks, in part by requiring human services programs receiving state funding to respond to state caseworkers conducting such checks within five business days.

If enacted into law, the bill would also update reunification reviews and require the state child protection agency to establish a formal internal review policy that creates a managerial review process prior to a decision to reunify children.

The bill requires DCF to notify a child or young adult’s attorney of changes in placement or if the child or young adult is involved in a 51A report, and the agency under the bill is also required to review policies to improve protocol for complex cases involving multiple social workers and area offices.

The proposed bill of rights, according to a bill summary, is designed to prevent discrimination of foster parents. It would require DCF to keep information about foster parents confidential, require training to be part of the onboarding process, and require that foster parents be provided with basic information regarding a foster child. DCF under the bill must also provide basic information regarding hearings, complaints process, and financial eligibility.

As part of the offboarding process, the bill authorizes an opportunity for foster parents to share information that could assist the child’s future foster parent or adoptive parent with the child’s everyday routine.

“It’s a bill that ensures … parental rights relative to foster care, gives foster care parents a voice in what’s going on,” Donato said. “It holds the DCF accountable to all of the things that they’re working on.”

To measure the impact of COVID-19, the bill requires DCF to report monthly, for the duration of the crisis, on changes in child abuse and neglect reports, and to analyze the effects of virtual and video technology on services during the COVID-19 crisis.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which held a one-minute session Monday and plans to return for another session on Thursday.

(Chris Van Buskirk contributed reporting.)

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