In the two years since the body of two-year-old Bella Bond washed up on a Deer Island beach there’s been a significant uptick in the number of kids in state care. What’s not clear is whether vulnerable children are better off.
“Since Bella Bond, we really haven’t had a child tragedy that’s been splashed across the headlines of the newspapers and that’s very important,” said Susan Elsen, an attorney with Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
Child welfare advocates say in the wake of highly-publicized child tragedies two things frequently happen: more people report suspected child abuse and agencies charged with protecting kids become more vigilant.
“There’s a pendulum that sort of swings periodically between what is called family support and stabilization, which is keeping kids at home,” said Maria Mossaides, the state’s child advocate, “and then periods from child welfare where the concern is on the safety side.”
Data from the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families show evidence of that pendulum swing. In 2013, the year Bella Bond was born, DCF managed about 46,500 cases. That number jumped to about 57,000 cases in 2015 and 2016. The number of kids in foster care is also up from about 7,600 in 2013 to more than 9,000 over the past two years.
Elsen says that increase is further straining an already overburdened foster care system.
“Young children are packing up every night not knowing where they’re going to sleeping the next night,” said Elsen.
She says foster homes intended for one night emergency stays — so-called hotline homes — are routinely being used to house children with nowhere else to go. The result is children, many of them toddler and preschool age, are moving from one location to next day after day.
“Being bounced around from home to home is a form of neglect or abuse of a child,” said Elsen. “It’s not intentional, it’s not out of ill will, but it’s not good for kids.”
DCF data confirms that foster children are moving from one placement to another more frequently. In 2013, 20 percent of foster children were placed in more than two homes within a year, compared to 30 percent in 2016.
Elsen says many of the kids in foster care could instead stay at home if DCF provided families with more intensive support.
“I don’t think DCF has all the tools because they don’t have enough social workers and they don’t have enough services,” said Elsen. “As a result I think more children are being pulled and placed in out-of-home placements.”
Mossaides, the state’s child advocate, agrees the foster care system is swamped. She points out that DCF is actively recruiting more foster families. The increased use of foster homes says Mossaides is not a response to the Bella Bond case, but the far-reaching impact of the opioid crisis.
“Children are coming into care,” said Mossaides, “because there are not in safe situations in their home environments.”