Thursday, July 3, 2008

Massachusetts Legislature Acts to Reform Child Abuse Laws, Prevention Measures, and Bureaucracy

Here's the best article I could find on the very important bill passed by the Massachusetts House and Senate on Tuesday, reforming child abuse laws and prevention within this state: Worcester Telegram and Gazette, by John Monahan: Child abuse protections approved/Legislature redefines laws, intervention. (It is interesting that when both the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram and Gazette - the New York Times-owned newspapers of our two biggest cities - run similar legal stories about a development in family law or crime, it is often the considerably smaller Worcester paper which has the more comprehensive and better article.)

The bill, which is expected to be signed by Governor Patrick, will among other things formally establish the Office of the Child Advocate in the governor's office (this office was actually already created by Governor Patrick by executive order as earlier discussed on this blog), give college benefits to children in foster care, and make many other changes designed to improve the Department of Social Services (DSS) - which the law will in fact rename "Department of Children and Families."

Unfortunately, as State Rep. James J. O’Day, himself a former DSS social worker, points out in the article (see the end of the excerpt below), the bill doesn't exactly put its money where its mouth is. The overburdened and often incompetent DSS will now be mandated, as the newly named DCF, to improve its performance, raise its standards, and do more work. But how exactly will that be possible if we do not also pay for more, and better, social workers to do the extra work? New rules and new methods of oversight can only do so much.

It's certainly hard to ask for more tax money for abused children, especially in a down economy, even here in Massachusetts. After all, it's been a long time since Bill Clinton declared that the era of Big Government is over. (And of course, the era of Big Government is indeed still over, at least for welfare and social services, though not for corporate welfare and federal war spending... but I digress.)

I am afraid this new law will prove far less effective than it promises to be, much like other unfunded, or underfunded mandates, such as No Child Left Behind. But I sincerely hope I am wrong about that.


BOSTON— The Legislature yesterday adopted broad changes in child abuse laws and prevention measures, beefing up police and social worker intervention programs, requiring closer monitoring of child abuse cases and more certain investigation requirements in cases of injured children.

Perhaps the largest change calls for the establishment of a powerful new Office of the Child Advocate in the governor’s office, independent of the state Department of Social Services, whose name is being changed by the bill to the Department of Children and Families.

Sections of the bill require the independent advocate’s office to investigate all critical incidents, receive and investigate complaints, and staff a 24-hour hot line for children in foster care. It also grants the office subpoena power to acquire witness statements and documents needed in child abuse investigations from private nonprofit agencies.

The bill is a compromise between two versions approved earlier in the House and Senate; it was adopted on unanimous votes in both chambers and sent to the governor yesterday for his review.

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said the bill followed up on findings from a House task force set up to investigate flaws in state child protection services and foster care, after revelations in the case of Haleigh Poutre, an 11-year-old foster child from Westfield.

In 2005, she was hospitalized in a coma from severe brain injuries allegedly suffered in beatings by a foster parent.

The bill would offer state assistance to pay not only tuition, but also college fees for state foster children and children adopted through the state Department of Families and Children, preventing an interruption of public services when they turn 18 as required under the existing system.

It also calls for social workers to have at least a bachelor’s degree and for supervisors to hold master’s degrees, and calls for police to investigate all cases of child injuries from the outset, and would bring police in to investigate situations that result in three child abuse complaints against a family.

Other provisions exempt information obtained by the Office of the Child Advocate from public records, and require more police training on handling minors when parents and guardians are arrested.


State Rep. James J. O’Day, D-West Boylston, a former DSS social worker, said while the bill improves child protection oversight and extends services past age 18 for foster children, it fails to invest in an expansion of the state’s social worker staff to provide better services and protective programs for children.

“This is not a panacea. There is always going to be, regrettably, child abuse,” he said.

“Oversight is oversight, but we need bodies out on the street dealing with families and helping families,” which is not accomplished in the bill, Mr. O’Day said.

“Without the workers to actually go out and do all the new work they are asked to do, it’s going to be an additional burden, to do more with less — the same old story,” Mr. O’Day said. “I would like to see more workers, more staffing, more services and the ability for workers to really do the work they are supposed to do with families. You can do that with 12 or 13 cases. You can’t do that with upwards of 22 cases.”

For information about Massachusetts divorce and family law, see the divorce and family law page of my law firm website.

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