By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Lawmakers considering bills to bolster the child welfare system were urged Tuesday by the state's independent child advocate to form a small study group on a short timeline to make sure there's an effort to synthesize proposals.
Child Advocate Gail Garinger told members of the Children and Families Committee that there's still too many silos in the system, which she said would benefit from more streamlining and efficiency that could in turn lead to better services for abused and neglected children.
"We have such important work to be done," Garinger said. "These bills are an attempt to get there."
The child welfare system came under fire in 2013 for systemic failures following the disappearance of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, a boy under the department's jurisdiction who was later found dead.
Beacon Hill reacted by boosting Department of Children and Families funding to lower child protection caseloads. The department hired more than 550 employees last year and distributed nearly 2,400 iPads to social workers to access case information remotely,
According to Children's League of Massachusetts Executive Director Erin Bradley, an Interagency Child Welfare Task Force established in 2008 under former Gov. Deval Patrick's administration, and chaired by the state health and human services secretary, is inactive "much to the detriment of the children and families of the Commonwealth.
The task force does not meet regularly, Bradley said, and has not participated in the required development of a five-year comprehensive plan recommending a systemwide response to child abuse and neglect.
Garinger said in her testimony that the 2008 Child Welfare Act had tasked her office with formulating a comprehensive plan to address child abuse and neglect. She said the task force had not consulted with her office over the formulation of that plan despite requests to do so, but said it would be "worth a try" to reenergize the effort.
Noting her office does not have a seat on the task force, Garinger said it was critical for lawmakers to consider the best use of her office as they weigh adding additional responsibilities given the office's five-person staff and $450,000 annual budget. In her testimony, she recommended a "more compact version of the task force."
The child advocate operates a helpline, reviews critical incident reports on child fatalities and serious injuries, reviews supported investigations of child abuse and neglect in day cares and foster care programs, and in 2014 publicly reported on two major investigations, including the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver.
Garinger also told lawmakers her office is close to completing its work on an examination of the Department of Children and Families' administrative fair hearing process. The Ripples Group is conducting the evaluation under a contract with the child advocate's office.
Rep. Paul Donato of Medford testified in favor of expanding the task force to include non-government stakeholders in the child welfare system. Bills before the committee would add two social workers, two youths and two parents of children formerly in foster care.
"When we have committees we sometimes forget to include into the committees the people that are most important," Donato said.
Donato said there's still a need for a task force. "Let's find out what they need as tools to keep them active," he told the News Service.
After Bradley suggested a revitalized task force with reporting deadlines could effectively address systemic issues in the child protection field, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) questioned the impact of additional reports, saying she has a general concern that state officials often fail to follow through on recommendations.