By Paula J. Owen TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Sara M. Bartosz, the lead attorney for Children's Rights representing foster children in a federal class action lawsuit filed years ago against the state, said the Patrick administration was well aware of changes needed within Department of Children and Families to ensure youngsters are cared for long before 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Leominster disappeared.
However, officials did not follow through with making those changes, she said.
"Certainly it was well documented within DCF files going back for years," Ms. Bartosz said. "Basic child care visitation was not happening pursuant to policy because caseloads were beyond what were agreed on in a bargaining unit."
Jeremiah's social worker, her supervisor and the area program manager from the Leominster office were subsequently fired, after it was discovered the Oliver family was only visited a few times last year.
As problems within the state's child welfare system continue to unfold, Ms. Bartosz is outraged over the state's duplicity, and wonders why a child protection agency charged with coming up with a plan to address the issues more than five years ago is not complying with the law.
It has been four years since Children's Rights — counsel for one of the plaintiffs — filed the suit against defendants Gov. Deval L. Patrick; John Polanowicz, secretary of the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services; and Olga I. Roche, commissioner of Department of Children and Families, on behalf of foster children in the care of DCF.
The suit in Massachusetts is referred to as the Connor B. case after one of the half dozen foster children named in it, acting on behalf of around 8,500 other foster children in the state's care who, after being removed from their family homes because of abuse or neglect, allegedly suffered harm or were exposed to harm while in DCF custody.
But it has been even longer since the Office of the Child Advocate was ordered by the state Legislature to come up with a comprehensive plan to address well-documented deficiencies in DCF.
Ms. Bartosz said there is a "sad cycle" that occurs when there are the kinds of systemic failings that put kids in harm's way in a child welfare system.
Mr. Patrick created the Office of the Child Advocate by executive order in 2007 to scrutinize cases of what was then called the Department of Social Services. The office was to report its findings publicly and recommend policy changes in response to a series of tragedies and legislative oversight hearings, Ms. Bartosz said.
Several high-profile tragedies had occurred, including in 2005 when 4-year-old Dontel Jeffers died at the hands of his foster mother. Also in 2005, Haleigh Poutre was left comatose after a beating by her adoptive mother, who was under DSS supervision.
"There was a lot of attention in the media and public dismay over the tragic circumstances those kids were in," Ms. Bartosz said, including legislative action in 2008 to have the Office of the Child Advocate formulate a comprehensive plan by June 2010, addressing needs in the child welfare system.
According to state law, the plan was to include periodic benchmarks and cost estimates, and recommend a coordinated, systemwide response to child abuse and neglect, including related mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence issues.
The comprehensive plan was to look forward five years or more, and was to be updated annually to plan for the ensuing five-year period, assess previous efforts and, if appropriate, include legislative and regulatory recommendations.
The Office of the Child Advocate is required by law to file the plan annually with the governor, the clerks of the Senate and the House, the Senate and House committees on ways and means, and the joint committee on children, families and persons with disabilities.
However, Gail Garinger, child advocate for the OCA, who testified in the Connor B. case about caseloads, training and teaming, also testified there was no such comprehensive plan completed by June 2010 or anytime thereafter, Ms. Bartosz said, because the resources were not provided to get it done. "That was a legislative action and plan to take action that was not implemented," Ms. Bartosz said.
"Hopefully that kind of history in Massachusetts and in other states, hopefully, that will not be played out repeatedly. That cycle has to be broken. It is not about winning or losing a court case. It is about fixing a system and making a system right for kids who are not in a position to speak for themselves as well as adults could. They are in foster care separated from their parents and are the most vulnerable, muted voices. Those kids' voices need to have some amplification and need to be front and center."
Ms. Garinger said she has no date when her office will complete the comprehensive plan. There are only four full-time employees at the Office of the Child Advocate — not enough to complete the plan while carrying out other mandates, she said.
Ms. Garinger said she is still optimistic the office will receive the resources it needs to complete the comprehensive plan.
"However, our ability to formulate a comprehensive plan is restricted by our current fiscal and staffing resources," Ms. Garinger said.
While that plan is still in limbo, officials are once again reacting to one of the most recent DCF tragedies — 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, who disappeared in September. The boy is feared dead and the Worcester district attorney is investigating the case as a homicide. In December, police arrested the boy's mother and her boyfriend on assault and battery charges in connection with his disappearance.
In light of the Oliver case, the governor has asked the Child Welfare League of America to conduct an independent investigation of DCF, and to review how the department works, including "written and unwritten" policies, caseload standards, and social workers' licensing and qualifications.
Yet, Ms. Bartosz said, state lawyers have fought against making any substantive changes recommended in the Connor B. suit that addresses those very issues.
Children's Rights, headquartered in New York City, has secured settlements with more than a dozen other states in similar foster care management disputes and those states have made recommended changes to their child welfare system, she said.
The Connor B. case was ruled on in November by U.S. federal Judge William G. Young for the District of Massachusetts. Though the judge agreed there were serious issues within DCF, he ordered in favor of the defendants' motion for a judgment on the record that stopped the trial before all evidence was presented.
Ms. Bartosz said Children's Rights is appealing and is in the midst of preparing its brief for appeal.
"We were seeking an injunction that would order DCF to repair parts of its system that is broke so kids aren't harmed by the very system that is supposed to provide a safe haven," she said.
"It would require the state to mend deficient structures and practices within the department."
Contact Paula Owen at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @PaulaOwenTG.