Friday, July 31, 2020

Senate Passes Bill to Increase Reporting Requirements for Department of Children and Families

Also establishes a Foster Parent Bill of Rights and Increases Access to Mental Health Care

The State Senate today passed a bill to introduce new oversight and reporting requirements for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). An Act relative to accountability for vulnerable children and families also moves the child fatality review board to the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA), establishes a ‘Foster Parent Bill of Rights,’ and increases access to mental health care for children in the Commonwealth.

“As a former Chair of Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, ensuring the safety and well-being of the Commonwealth’s children remains deeply and personally important to me,” stated Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the strength of this bill by looking at the needs of our children from a holistic point of view. I’d like to particularly thank Senator Chang-Diaz and Senator Rodrigues for ensuring this bill moved forward.”

Under the bill, DCF would be required to publish consolidated annual reports and quarterly profiles, establish a 3-year plan with targets for safety, permanence and well-being outcomes for children, and submit a report on young adults who continue to receive services after reaching the age of 18. The bill also updates reporting requirements that are outdated, irrelevant or duplicative, and requires DCF and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop clear plans for maintaining close contact with, and providing quality education to, children who have open cases with DCF during the COVID-19 state of emergency.

“This bill will protect some of the most vulnerable children in the Commonwealth while strengthening our foster system and providing support for foster parents,” said Senator Michael Rodrigues (D - Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “Thank you to Senate President Spilka for her leadership, Senators Chang-Diaz and Comerford for their work on this legislation, and all of my Senate colleagues for championing foster families.

“The mission of the DCF is vital and the Senate has consistently adopted bipartisan supported legislation to strengthen the agency so that the people who are tasked with protecting these vulnerable children have standards of accountability that maximize the well-being and safety of those they serve,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R- Gloucester). “Importantly, this bill advances those goals in a timely and effective way.”

To increase access to vital mental health care for children in care, the bill eliminates prior authorization for mental health acute treatment for children experiencing acute mental health crises. It also requires emergency departments to have the capacity to evaluate and stabilize a person admitted with a mental health presentation at all times, and to refer them to appropriate treatment or inpatient admission, expediting the process for individuals under 22 years old. Additionally, the bill establishes a pilot program, administered by the Department of Public Health, to increase student access to tele-behavioral health services in schools.

The bill seeks to increase support for, and grow the pool of, foster parents in the Commonwealth through the establishment of a ‘Foster Parent Bill of Rights.’ Specifically, the bill includes several key rights important to foster families, including: access to training and resources; the right to appropriate communication between DCF, courts, and others involved with caring for the child; the right to be free from all forms of discrimination in carrying out their duties as foster parents; the ability to exercise rights without fear of repercussions; and establishing a reasonable and prudent parenting standard.

“This important bill will help the state do better business when it comes to serving one of the most at-risk populations in our Commonwealth: children in DCF custody,” stated Senator Jo Comerford (D-Northampton). “My heartfelt thanks to Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz, Michael Rodrigues, and Senate President Karen Spilka for their dogged work on this legislation. I am delighted that the rights of foster parents will be enumerated, strengthening their role and responsibilities within this complex system.”

An Act relative to accountability for vulnerable children and families now moves to the House of Representatives for further action.