Thursday, February 13, 2014

Senate Approves Restrictions, Inquiry into Foster Care Placements with Individuals having Prior Criminal Records

The Senate today approved new restrictions on the placement of children under the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in foster homes with individuals who have a prior criminal record.

The amendment, offered by myself and the Senate Republican Caucus, prohibits DCF’s approval of any new foster care placements involving individuals or family members convicted of a felony, unless there are specific written findings on the necessity of such placement and a finding that the placement poses no threat to the safety of the child. The amendment was approved on a roll call vote of 32-5 as part of a $196.4 million supplemental budget passed by the Senate today.

The amendment also requires the Office of the Child Advocate to examine all such existing foster care placements to ensure the safety of each child, and to determine whether or not such placement is appropriate.

The Senate’s actions follow recent media reports indicating that DCF has allowed foster parents with prior criminal records to take children into their homes in 650 cases since 2013. There are currently 552 active homes caring for children where the guardian has a prior criminal conviction.

Under DCF policies that were last updated in 2008, prospective foster parents who have been convicted of crimes such as soliciting sex from a minor, motor vehicle homicide, and armed assault are not automatically disqualified from becoming foster parents, and can seek a waiver from DCF. This is due in part to a 2000 Superior Court decision.

According to recent media reports, DCF maintains a “discretionary” list that includes about 110 crimes applicants can have on their records and still qualify as foster parents. Some of these offenses include:

• inducing sex from a minor;

• soliciting a prostitute;

• possessing obscene “pornographic” material;

• assault and battery with a dangerous weapon;

• armed burglary;

• involuntary manslaughter;

• motor vehicle homicide while driving under the influence; and

• trafficking in cocaine or heroin within 1,000 feet of a school.

Last December, the Massachusetts Senate Republican Caucus – led by Senator Don Humason (R-Westfield), the Caucus’ representative on the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities – released a letter calling for an independent investigation into the failures of DCF regarding the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver. Oliver, a five-year-old Fitchburg resident, went missing last fall while under DCF care, and his whereabouts remain unknown.

The supplemental budget now heads to the House of Representatives for further action.