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Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, union announce reforms to improve troubled foster care system

Amid ongoing problems with the state’s foster care system, the Department of Children and Families on Tuesday announced an agreement with the union representing the agency’s workers to review staffing and provide more resources to foster parents and social workers.

Gov.

Charlie Baker said he believes the reforms will result in “a big improvement in the way the department works and the way it serves kids and families.”

Baker said now that an agreement has been reached with the union, “We’re going to move forward with it aggressively.

Adriana Zwick, DCF chapter president of SEIU 509, called the plan “definitely a step in the right direction.”

“All my members and I have cared about this whole time is just making sure that vulnerable kids and families are safe and their well-being is being is addressed,” Zwick said.

A series of recent news stories in the The Republican / MassLive and the Boston Globe have detailed failings in the state foster care system. Family resource workers, the liaisons between the department and foster families, say they are overworked due to a lack of staffing.

That results in foster families not getting the support they need.

Many foster parents say they feel disrespected and overlooked by DCF.

Social workers are struggling to find enough homes for children, and children are aging out of the system without a permanent home.

As The Republican previously reported, the state is in the process of revising its foster care policy, which was last updated in 2008. That will include a look at staffing.

Beginning this July, DCF will begin adding new social workers who work directly with foster families to offices that are currently understaffed.

DCF will also work to recruit new foster homes.

The agency already hired 18 foster care recruiters. It plans to add 11 more, so there is one for each area office.

DCF has been running a pilot program in five offices in which a dedicated social worker begins searching for a kinship home, which is a home with relatives, as soon as a child is removed from their parents.

The program has increased kinship placements by 56 percent. Next month, the state plans to expand the program to 10 offices.

Baker would not say whether more money will be needed to add staff. But he noted that the state has added $150 million to the DCF budget over the past four years.

“It’s a place where we continue to make investments, and if it turns out that we need to make additional ones, we will,” Baker said.

In response to concerns about a lack of information provided to foster parents, DCF is launching a new intranet portal, where foster parents can message each other online, message DCF workers and access resources.

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Baker said the need to address confidentiality issues surrounding children served by DCF were part of the reason it took time to develop the portal.

DCF is also working with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to develop trauma-informed training for foster parents and to increase parents’ access to respite care.

The state also plans to reach out to foster parents to find out what additional support they need.

DCF officials said the state is willing to work with lawmakers to develop a foster parent bill of rights.

Several lawmakers have been advocating for a simple document clearly outlining the rights foster parents have regarding accurate medical information, notice of court dates, access to respite care and advance notification when a child is removed from a home, among other issues.

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The department is also trying to better deal with emergency placement situations by developing an after-hours hotline where social workers can call to find emergency homes through a centralized database.

DCF hopes to have that up and running by the fall.

The state’s Education Department has agreed to provide immediate access to child care for children in emergency placements in 10 DCF offices, with the goal of expanding that statewide next year.

Zwick said DCF appears to be “finally addressing the issues that we’ve been seeing for some time now,” including children who lack stability or spend time sitting in DCF offices waiting for a placement.

Zwick said members are “saddened and frustrated as they’re watching the impact that has on children.

“They have kids in their care and see what it’s doing to them not having enough resources to provide them with the stability they need,” she said.

Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU 509, said in a statement that the work of DCF is ever-evolving, and “these reforms tackle a growing need for the social workers and foster parents operating in an overburdened foster care system.

At any given time, DCF oversees around 9,000 children in foster homes.

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