SJC decision puts brakes on agency
The state’s high court is slapping strict limits on child welfare workers who yank kids from their parents too quickly, stating in a sweeping ruling that investigators must make reasonable efforts to keep families together.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that before a child is seized by the state, a judge must twice determine whether the Department of Children and Families made reasonable efforts to keep kids with their natural parents. The first determination is at an initial hearing, and the second happens 72 hours later.
Some — including public defenders and the head of the Office of the Child Advocate — say the rule eliminates confusion and forces DCF to make a good-faith effort not to rush through investigations that could split families up.
“Making reasonable efforts to see if there are any services that can be offered that will allow a child to remain at home is probably a good thing,” said Maria Mossaides, the state’s Child Advocate. “This is going to cause people to think about what they’re doing and whether they have met their burden.”
But Jennifer Lane of Community Voices, a victims’ advocacy group, said in an email that the SJC “keeps picking apart our laws and the only one it’s hurting is our children and the commonwealth.” She said the decision effectively forces DCF to teach parents how to take care of their kids.
“This decision reads more like a property dispute,” Lane said. “If DCF isn’t allowed to watch out for children, then who is? DCF’s responsibility is to protect the children, not parent their parents.”
The unanimous decision, penned by Chief Justice Ralph Gants, notes that DCF can remove a child in a number of instances, including situations where a kid is abandoned or when the parent has been convicted of crimes of violence against other family members.
Gants also noted that the ruling does not stop DCF staffers from removing a child from a potentially dangerous household.
“This does not mean that the department should allow a child to remain with his or her parents when there is reasonable cause to believe that doing so would subject the child’s health or safety to immediate danger from abuse or neglect,” he wrote.
The ruling stems from a case in June last year, when a DCF social worker removed a 3-year-old boy from a Worcester home after a brief assessment during which she smelled marijuana, saw a hallway littered with trash and noticed debris in the child’s room.
However, the staffer made no efforts to assist the family but she told a juvenile court judge that she had, according to the decision. The judge allowed the state to take the boy, and after a second hearing, ruled that “custody would remain with the department,” according to court documents.
An appeals court justice found that the judge did not properly consider whether the DCF staffer made reasonable efforts to find another option besides removal. The child was eventually returned to his parents, but the SJC took the case anyway to clarify the rule of law.
In response to the ruling, a DCF spokeswoman issued a statement yesterday, saying, “The department remains committed to providing families with the services and supports that prevent or eliminate the need to remove a child from their home to begin with, and making reasonable efforts to return a child as soon as possible, when appropriate and safe to do so.”
Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, lauded the decision and said it will help children and a cash-strapped DCF.
“At a time when DCF’s foster care system is operating beyond its true capacity,” Dsida said, “ensuring that DCF keeps children at home when they can stay there safely means that scarce foster care resources will remain available for children who really need them.”