Getting Answers: experts address possible cracks in DCF reporting process

Massachusetts law requires those who work with children to notify DCF if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected.
Published: Nov. 7, 2022 at 7:24 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 7, 2022 at 9:17 AM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - Massachusetts law requires those who work with children to notify DCF if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected. While this system is designed to protect the most vulnerable, we’re getting answers on why some experts said the process is flawed.

Mya, 17, said she endured a terrible childhood at the hands of her biological family.

“I remember just like realizing wow, my parents actually don’t love me,” said Mya.

She said it took 89 51As, which are reports of neglect or abuse by mandated reporters like teachers and doctors, to get her removed from her abusive home. One of those reports came from the woman she would come to call “mom.”

“It was the most love it I’ve ever felt in my life…” Mya explained.

However, after what she calls the best year of her life, it took just one 51A report for her to be removed from that foster home permanently, despite Mya saying there was never any neglect or abuse.

“I understand that there is a higher expectation for foster parents, but I believe that parents and biological families should be held up to an even higher standard,” Mya noted.

DCF would not comment on this or any case over privacy concerns. but experts said the 51A system can be flawed with delays in response times and court proceedings and a large volume of unnecessary reports.

“What used to be just sort of normal stuff of life - a kid falls off a bike or somebody gets into a tiff with their sibling or anything like tha - and it gets reported,” said attorney Gregory Hession.

A key finding of DCF’s 2021 end-of-year report found that Hispanic and Black children are more than two times likely to be reported as victims of abuse or neglect, but investigations revealed equivalent rates of abuse and neglect across ethnicities and races.

“Once a family is reported, they are under a microscope. Recent research shows that 70 percent of Black boys live in families whose homes have been the subject of a 51A investigation. That’s staggeringly high,” said Jay Blitzman.

Blitzman, a former juvenile judge for 24 years, said a 51A report can set off a process that is inherently traumatizing and should be reserved for clear cases of abuse.

“If we find ways to support children and families in their community and find ways to avoid unnecessary state intervention, that’s in our collective interest. That’s my big take away,” Blitzman added.

In an emergency 51A response, when the child’s life could be in danger, DCF will assess the child’s safety within two hours and take up to five days to complete the report. In a non-emergency response, the child’s safety will be assessed within three days with a report finished within 15 days, but delays are not uncommon.

From January through June of this year, among the two Springfield DCF offices, 863 51A reports were proven to be cases of abuse or neglect and 793 reports were unsubstantiated claims. In addition, 62.2 percent of the reports were completed on time. DCF said there were sweeping reforms made in 2015 and response times have improved since 2017. The agency said, in a statement: “It is important to note that emergency responses are completed on time at a higher rate.”

The department has continued to overhaul, reassess, and revise core policies, aligning them with current best practices in child safety.

Hession said that delays exist in court as well.

“There are many lawyers that don’t want to do these cases, so they’re short of lawyers, they’re short of judges, they’re short of court time, and the whole system is just sort of imploding,” Hession explained.

When a child is removed from a home, the parent has a right to a temporary custody hearing within 72 hours, but Hession said the minimum time it’s taking in Hampden County is three weeks.

“I have one in Holyoke, which has a temporary custody hearing, that’s supposed to be done within 72 hours, it’s now up to five months,” Hession noted.

Mya is settling into her new foster home.

“I miss everybody, I miss my family so much,” Mya said.

Despite her struggles in the foster system, she said she’ll continue to work towards her dream of one day being a chef.

“I think it’s going to be hard, but the sky is the limit and I’m definitely going to give everything I’ve got into it,” Mya added.