Foster care failure?

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November 13, 2012, 10:38 pm
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(NECN: Ally Donnelly) - She sits in a small office. The lights are off. Our cameras are on.

"Kids have said to me, 'I'm not just a piece of trash. I shouldn't just be moved around,'" she tells us.

As a social worker for the Mass. Department of Children and Families, this woman has seen everything. But, still -- there are cases that haunt her. Like the 5-year-old girl she removed from her family and brought to a new foster home.

"There were dogs outside, trash all over the place," she recalls. "The foster parent came to the door looking disheveled and I remember thinking, if they're not caring for themselves, how are they going to care for one of our children?"

The social worker, who has asked not to be identified, says when they got inside, there was just a bare mattress on a bedroom floor and her colleague had to peel the screaming preschooler off of her -- so they could leave her there.

We asked how the couple got approved by the Department of Children and families to be foster parents.

"Unfortunately, we're so hurting for foster homes, anyone that's interested we try to take." she says. "As long as they meet the minimum standards, we open them up."

DCF Commissioner Angelo McClain dismisses the assertion.

"I can hear someone saying that in frustration but that's ridiculous. We have a process, we've got standards," he says. McClain fiercely defends the agency's foster parents and how they care for some of the roughly 7,500 children in state custody. "I mean parenting is a tough job and then, if you think of foster parenting, it's even tougher. There aren't necessarily people lining up to want to do that."

The quality and quantity of foster homes is just one of the issues in a class action lawsuit that soon heads to federal court in Springfield. A national watchdog group -- Children's Rights -- is suing Massachusetts, naming six foster children as plaintiffs. The suit alleges that state officials shuffle kids from placement to placement, that children are subjected to high rates of abuse and that DCF social workers are burdened with unmanageable case loads.

Sitting in the Children's Rights offices in New York City, Marcia Robinson Lowry said, "The only redress these children have is unfortunately when our organization goes to court and says judge, look what's happening to these children its unconscionable and you know what else? It's also unconstitutional."

Some social workers say reform needs to start with them. While the Council on Accreditation says social workers should take on no more than 18 cases -- the Child Welfare League of America puts limits at 12-15. Massachusetts claims an 18 case maximum. But according to DCF data, even though the average caseload was 16 in the last 12 months, one in three social workers had 18 or more cases, with some juggling as many as 22 families at once.

We ask the social worker if it's possible to do 18-20 cases well.

"No. Absolutely not," she said. "I don't even know if it's possible to do the 15 well, to be honest. It's a lot of going home every night, wondering, did I do the right thing? Did I cancel the wrong appointment? Just worrying -- not sleeping at night."

She says the pressure from upper management to meet their home-visit numbers is intense and it's families that bear the brunt of it.

"Unfortunately it's, as we call it, the drive by social work," she says. "You kind of stop in a house for two minutes. Stop in, lay eyes on all the kids, make sure the general questions are answered, and leave and go on to next home."

Does she worry kids could get hurt or even die? "Yes, absolutely," she said.

Commissioner McClain said, "I'm actually surprised to hear you say that folks are doing that sort of drive by social work, because I'm out in the field quite a bit and talk to staff and what staff are telling me since we implicated our new case practice model two years ago, that they are actually spending more time with families and engaged with families in more positive more productive kind of way." But, still he says, "We know we want to lower the case load, we are committed to lowering the case load."

McClain says the state is also committed to lowering the number of foster placements. According to Children's Rights, one third of all children in DCF foster care have been moved through five or more different placements in their time with the agency.

Case supervisor and union representative Peter Mackinnon says that shuffling can have devastating effects on a child.  

"Now they've changed school districts, those social connections are lost," he said, "The stigma of being a foster child creates mental health issues, depression, criminal behavior because they're just dealing with this emotion that's been sitting there forever."

Twenty-three-year-old Lauren James was one of those kids. In 1997, when she was 8 years old, she says her mother had a mental breakdown and a social worker came to school to take her and her three brothers into state custody.

"We were all split apart and put into different homes and I wasn't really sure what was going on," James said.

James says that day started a tumultuous journey in and out of foster care. Her mother went on to kill herself, and James says over the next decade, she was shuffled through state group homes and at least 13 different foster homes -- where she was verbally, physically and sexually abused.

"Just horrible abuses and things have happened to me," she nearly whispers. "Basically my entire childhood just robbed of me."

James says if you want to see the lasting effects of a broken system on a child, look at her life. She has no permanent place to live in New York, no job and trouble trusting people.

"I do not want to be a victim. I do not want to live in my past," she said. "I want to move on, move forward and do beautiful, beneficial things in this world. And I'm struggling to find any way to do that right now."

McClain says it breaks his heart to hear about kids who've been hurt, but for every tragedy are three more success stories. He insists DCF is moving forward. Despite crippling budget cuts, he says the agency has reduced the number of children in foster care by 2,000, shortened the time frame for adoptions and kept more children with extended family when they need to be removed from their primary home.  "I sleep good at night," he said. "I sleep very good at night. The commitment I made that was every day when I walk into this place we are going to make this place a little bit better and we have done that."

McClain asks for patience for the agency to do more, but James says her patience has run out.

"We cannot wait any longer for a system that has already failed myself, my entire family and thousands upon thousands of other families, it's just not practical," she said. "These kids are being hurt now, so we go and help them now."

The class action law suit is expected to be heard in Federal Court in Springfield in January.

Tags: massachusetts, Ally Donnelly, Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, Angelo McClain, foster care system, social workers
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