Advocacy group submits scathing review of state’s foster care system

A children’s advocacy group has issued a series of scathing reports on Massachusetts’ foster care system, contending that nearly one in five children in state custody for at least two years has suffered abuse or neglect.

Children’s Rights released the reports Thursday as part of a federal class-action lawsuit it brought against the state’s child welfare system in 2010.

It asserts that children are mistreated at a high rate under state care, often bounce from one foster home to the next, and sometimes stay in the foster system for years. Approximately one in six who are reunited with their families return to foster care after further abuse or neglect, the group says.

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In several reports submitted by child welfare specialists, the group said the state’s Department of Children and Families is plagued by dysfunction, low staffing, and lax oversight.

“Far too many children in Massachusetts remain at risk of maltreatment even after they enter the protection of the state’s child welfare system,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, who directs Children’s Rights. “These new reports further underscore the critical need to overhaul DCF as it fails to meet its moral and legal duty to keep kids in foster care safe from further harm.”

The Department of Children and Families defended its performance, saying it “remains confident in our case management practices as we work to protect children from abuse and neglect.”

The agency said it was prepared to take the case to trial, unlike other states that Children’s Rights had taken legal action against. It said the group’s reports were not independent assessments but part of the legal discovery process.

“We will not be commenting on specific allegations at this time, and expect the full evidence at trial to show that the Department meets its obligations under the law to protect children from abuse and neglect,” the agency said in a statement.

Children’s Rights, however, said that federal data show that Massachusetts since 2006 has consistently ranked in the bottom tier of state welfare systems on several standard measures, such as keeping children in stable homes and finding permanent homes in a timely manner.

“The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is failing the children it serves,” one review stated. “Rather than providing a safe harbor for children who have suffered abuse and neglect in their family homes, DCF too often places children at risk of additional harm and instability, and too often fails to provide for children’s basic physical and emotional needs.”

The group also found that more than 25 percent of the time, agency’s social workers fail to make required monthly visits to children. More than 25 percent of approved foster homes do not receive required annual assessments.

Among a sample of children who entered foster care between July 2009 and July 2010, more than 18 percent who were reunited with their parents were again removed from the home because they were abused or neglected.

The trial is scheduled to begin in January.