Massachusetts officials downplay waivers granted to foster parents with criminal records

Massachusetts officials today downplayed concerns that the state has approved hundreds of waivers for foster care parents with criminal records.

There were 545 foster homes where the guardian had a prior criminal conviction. But 95 percent of the crimes were committed more than a decade ago — often when the foster parents were juveniles themselves — and many of the offenses were minor, officials in Governor Deval Patrick’s administration said.

In addition, administration officials said more than 90 percent of the ex-convicts approved for the foster care program were taking in relatives, consistent with the state’s goal of trying to keep families together when possible.

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“Kinship care promotes stability, education and meaningful family connections for children who have been removed from abusive or neglectful homes,” said Olga Roche, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families in a statement

Just one foster parent who committed a crime in its most serious category of criminal offenses was approved for a waiver — and that was a man who committed crimes when he was a teenager and years later was approved to be the foster father for his stepdaughter, administration officials said.

The Patrick administration provided conviction information about the foster parents on Friday to the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which has been looking into an array of concerns about the Department of Children and Families.

The agency has been under heavy scrutiny since authorities learned in December that a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, Jeremiah Oliver, was missing. DCF later acknowledged that caseworkers failed to visit Oliver’s home for as many as seven months. The boy is feared dead.

State Representative David P. Linsky, who chairs the committee, said earlier today he had requested additional details about the criminal waivers.

“I am looking for more specifics,” said Linsky, a Natick Democrat. “I think it’s too premature to say what this means.”

There are at least two other reviews of DCF underway. The Patrick administration hired the Child Welfare League of America to review the Oliver case and the agency’s operations, while State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office is auditing the agency.

Governor Patrick said he was not going to second-guess the criminal waivers, noting the convictions may be a decade old or involve other extenuating circumstances.

“Every case is different,” Patrick said. “There are judgments made.”