For Quira Dang, the last straw that caused her to quit the foster-care system was the loss of the 14-month-old foster son she had hoped to adopt. A Department of Children and Families caseworker failed to inform her of an upcoming court date to terminate his biological parents’ rights, and a distant relative of the child’s attended the trial and ended up with custody.
“We wanted more than anything to adopt him,” says Dang, 31, who had cared for the boy since he was six weeks old. “He identified us as his parents, and he was bonded to us. They took a happy, healthy, well-cared-for child, and they moved him to a stranger with no parenting experience. There’s no way you could say that was in his best interest.”
Dang is one of a group of former and current foster parents seeking to formalize foster parents’ rights in Massachusetts. Barbara Papile, founder of the 70-member group, Massachusetts Foster Parents UNITED, is spearheading an effort to get a Foster Parent Bill of Rights passed in Massachusetts.
The group is fighting for information about their charges, including behavior and health concerns, and respect as members of the child’s care team, which they say DCF routinely denies them. The bill they hope will change that is currently being debated in the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities.
To date, 17 states have passed a version of the bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Massachusetts effort comes at a time that stories about foster-care system failings surface in the media on a near daily basis.
“It’s a system that is under-resourced and stigmatized, and we need to have reforms that are more systemic because continually putting Band-Aids on hasn’t worked and will not work to solve the big problems,” says Adam Pertman, founder of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and author of “Adoption Nation” (Harvard Common Press, 2011). “We need to move from a child-placement model to a family-success model, and that means reallocating budgets and rethinking how we do our jobs.”
A longtime foster parent, Papile says DCF blacklisted her Rockland home more than a year ago after the agency removed a four-month-old baby in her care who had failure to thrive syndrome. She says she made every effort possible to get the baby to eat and that DCF recanted the FTT diagnosis and removed the baby after Papile expressed frustration at the situation.
“DCF has been out of control for decades,” says Papile, 56, who since 2009 has fostered 17 babies and toddlers, including a one-month-old girl who came to her with 30 broken bones. “They have to stop playing God! Their tactics and ultimatums that are not in their playbook are truly hurting these kids in their care.”
The proposed bill comes amid a number of disturbing allegations against DCF, including an incident last June in which DCF social workers stormed the home of longtime foster parents Meg and John DeMalia at midnight and strip-searched their four biological children. The motivation: A tiny bruise, possibly the result of a bug bite, on their three-year-old foster child’s ear had been reported. The DCF workers also insisted that the biological children be taken to the hospital for medical clearances. When the DeMalias tried to call the police, a caseworker threatened to remove their biological children, according to Meg. The couple closed their home to foster children after the incident.
Foster parents say that as a result of such abuses of power, the children suffer by being moved from home to home and the state loses qualified foster parents whom it has already spent time and money training and licensing. In July, DCF announced a $250,000 initiative to recruit more foster parents, irking experienced foster parents who say the agency should be working to retain the homes it already has.
Since 2015, DCF has reportedly closed 609 foster homes, and 841 foster parents have opted to leave the system. Currently, Massachusetts has 3,855 licensed foster homes and about 10,000 children in foster care, according to published reports. That figure soars to about 18,000 when combined with children in residential-treatment centers and group homes. Last year, DCF granted nearly 300 homes waivers to exceed their capacity, creating overcrowded conditions in which as many as nine people may share one bathroom, a situation this reporter witnessed in an Easthampton foster home.
Having foster homes with a track record of safety is crucial given the high incidence of abuse and neglect of children in state care. In fiscal 2016, 35 children died in DCF’s care, 256 were victims of abuse and neglect, and 263 were neglected or abused, according to DCF.
DCF didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
Papile thought she had found her calling after her son left home to join the Air Force eight years ago and she decided to use his empty bedroom to foster children. “I love taking care of the babies,” says the grandmother of six, including a set of one-year-old and four-year-old twins. “I’m more effective with the babies. You love them and nurture them, and you can give them a good start because they’re not coming with so much baggage.”
That all changed after Papile told DCF she was worried about the four-month-old’s refusal to eat and the agency removed the child. “A four-month-old who weighs eight pounds can tank pretty quickly,” Papile says. “I told them I was concerned that the placement might not be a good fit, and they translated that into my being unable to care for the child.”
Fear of retaliation and removal of their placements keep many families silent, foster parents say, but as negative stories about DCF continue to air in the press, more families are being emboldened to come forward.
“Our going public with our story has brought forth a landslide of foster parents with similar stories of abuse by DCF workers,” says former foster parent Elaine Cleaves.
A common thread in these stories is how they confronted a culture of deception at DCF, either through omission of key information about their charges or through outright lies.
In Cleaves’ case, a social worker’s failure to reveal a 12-year-old boy’s sexual predation history ended up with her then-four-year-old daughter being sexually abused four years ago. Cleaves, 68, of Chelmsford, has fostered about 500 children since the late 1970s and adopted two, including the girl who was abused. She filed a lawsuit against DCF and retired from fostering.
“You read your child a bedtime story and kiss her good night, and she wakes you because she had a very bad dream and insists there is a monster in her room,” Cleaves says. “You go in and do the flashlight thing, assuring her there is no monster, only to learn she was right and the monster was placed in your home by the very agency whose charter it is to protect children.”
Cleaves is waiting for a judge to decide whether the case can go forward, or as DCF has claimed, it is immune from liability because the act was committed by a third party. Cleaves believes granting DCF immunity in such cases basically gives the agency a license to lie: “They can make false charges, lie if it is convenient, strip-search children, place sex offenders in our homes and not tell us, and claim immunity when bad stuff happens.”
She once considered foster parenting her profession but now focuses on parenting the nine-year-old daughter who, she says, bears a host of psychological scars from the abuse. “Foster parents are the backbone of the foster-care system, yet we do not have a voice,” Cleaves says. “We need to be given a voice, we need to have a sense of security in the system, and we need to know all the children in our homes are safe. We need to have confidence in our DCF workers and know that DCF is held accountable for its actions.”
Rep. Joseph McKenna (R-Worcester), a co-sponsor of the Foster Parent Bill of Rights, says the legislation would address breakdowns in communication and help DCF retain more qualified foster parents. “We, as legislators, hear frequently that basic and necessary pieces of information, like medical records, behavioral concerns, allergies, medications, even occasionally the foster child’s name, are not provided to foster parents,” McKenna says. “It is nearly impossible to provide adequate care and services to a child whom you literally know nothing about.”
Regarding communication issues, he says, “foster parents have incredible difficulty reaching DCF if they have any questions or concerns or any critical emergency with the child arises. They often have trouble reaching DCF if they require respite. These foster parents are putting themselves out there for these children and are unfortunately being ignored and not treated as partners in this fostering relationship.”
In addition to the Foster Parent Bill of Rights, two bills pending in Massachusetts’ Legislature would help address some of the issues raised by foster parents. An “electronic backpack” bill would create a database of every foster child’s school records. The other bill would establish an independent foster-care review office to oversee the state’s foster-care system, make policy recommendations, review individual cases, and ensure accountability and transparency.
Recent court victories in other states have bolstered the foster-care reform movement. After years of high-profile abuse cases and foster-parent attrition, Washington State recently created a new agency -- the Department of Children, Youth and Families -- to administer child-protective and foster-care services. Last year, a California federal appeals court ruled that social workers who lied to remove a girl from her mother’s home weren’t entitled to immunity.
During her three years as a foster mother, Dang, of Billerica, says she “experienced many issues regarding DCF.” The issues ranged from being given an incorrect first or last name for a child, not being told that a child only spoke Spanish, and learning of a child’s diagnosis by finding medicine in the child’s bag.
In written testimony supporting the Foster Parent Bill of Rights, Dang states, “Through this whole experience, I have never felt like part of the team or that my opinion and experience matter. We’ve been treated like babysitters. It’s one thing to not have control over what happens to a child, but it’s another thing to not be given the information that is available.”