Allowing abused or neglected children to stay in contact with their biological family is often in their best interest, even when the state has placed the children in foster care. So why is the state making the supervised visits that allow troubled families to maintain connections more difficult?
In theory, the state is on board. Here’s how the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families website puts it: DCF “works in partnership with families and communities to keep children safe from abuse and neglect. . . . Sometimes, DCF provides foster care, until children can be reunited with their families. . . . Contact for foster children with biological family members is encouraged when appropriate.”
If biological family contact is really encouraged, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration shouldn’t be making it harder for state-monitored visits to take place. Yet, lawyers from the state public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, say that’s just what’ s happening, due to the recent relocation of several offices from downtown sites to less accessible suburban office parks. The Malden office was relocated to Wakefield. The Lowell office was moved to Chelmsford. And, DCF is now making plans to move its Cambridge office to Burlington.
As reported by the Globe’s Kay Lazar, these office relocations are making it more difficult for hundreds of parents who have lost custody of their children to visit with them. Those family ties, already under great stress, will be stretched to the breaking point, if a mother or father can’t physically touch their own child — not because they don’t want to, but because a DCF office is no longer close to public transportation and they don’t have access to a car. To fail to factor accessibility into office relocation decisions is bureaucracy at its most heartless and most counterproductive — if keeping families together, whenever possible, is truly part of the DCF mission.
Asked by Lazar to explain the process for locating or moving a DCF local area office, the Baker administration responded, in typical fashion, with an antiseptic e-mailed statement. According to the information provided to Lazar, the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) is responsible for the standardized leasing process for all state agencies. That requires an open and competitive solicitation; lease agreement terms that are a maximum of 10 years, with an extension option of 5 years “in certain instances that are beneficial to the Commonwealth.” The leases for the Lowell and Malden offices had to be re-procured since they were “at maximum limits.” The administration declined to tell Lazar whether they seek any input about transportation needs.
However, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services who responded to follow-up questions from the Globe editorial board said via another e-mail, “Transportation, location, square footage, parking, safety and security and costs are factors which contribute to the leasing procurement and decision.” The spokeswoman also said that when possible, DCF tries to find alternative locations for family visits such as public libraries, parks, community agencies, or relatives’ homes. But, when there are “safety concerns,” visits must be held in the office.
If these offices are to serve as the meeting place for families, access to public transportation must be a key factor in the relocation equation, and parents should be proactively told about transportation reimbursement possibilities that are available on a case-by-case basis. How else is a parent who doesn’t own a car, and who may be recovering from drug or alcohol abuse, supposed to get close enough to hug their son or daughter, tell them they love them and try to reestablish trust? Understanding the first mission is to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, the state should be helping, not hurting, the process of determining if family reunification is the best possible outcome.