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October 29, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

On October 20, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a sharp reprimand to the state’s child protective agency (Boston Herald, 10/21/17).

The state’s high court is slapping strict limits on child welfare workers who yank kids from their parents too quickly, stating in a sweeping ruling that investigators must make reasonable efforts to keep families together.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that before a child is seized by the state, a judge must twice determine whether the Department of Children and Families made reasonable efforts to keep kids with their natural parents. The first determination is at an initial hearing, and the second happens 72 hours later.

Child welfare authorities in essentially every state are required by law and regulation to place a priority on family reunification. The SJC ruling is a natural extension of that doctrine. If families are to be kept together when possible, that rule should be applied from the start, not just after the children have been taken away.

But the decision makes sense on a far more basic level. For a child, being taken from your parents, home, siblings, school, friends, etc. is deeply traumatic. Doing so should be avoided unless the child faces imminent danger. The SJC’s ruling attempts to require exactly that.

The unanimous decision, penned by Chief Justice Ralph Gants, notes that DCF can remove a child in a number of instances, including situations where a kid is abandoned or when the parent has been convicted of crimes of violence against other family members.

Gants also noted that the ruling does not stop DCF staffers from removing a child from a potentially dangerous household.

“This does not mean that the department should allow a child to remain with his or her parents when there is reasonable cause to believe that doing so would subject the child’s health or safety to immediate danger from abuse or neglect,” he wrote.

Moreover, the ruling seems to comply with U.S. Supreme Court decisions stating that, absent that immediate danger, states have no justiciable interest in interfering in families or parental decision-making. The facts of the case decided in Massachusetts make the matter altogether clear.

The ruling stems from a case in June last year, when a DCF social worker removed a 3-year-old boy from a Worcester home after a brief assessment during which she smelled marijuana, saw a hallway littered with trash and noticed debris in the child’s room.

By no stretch of the imagination should that set of circumstances have resulted in taking the child from the home. Some people aren’t very good housekeepers and many people smoke pot now and again. If those were enough to justify taking children, CPS agencies nationwide would be inundated with children, almost all of whom would have been perfectly safe and healthy with their parents.

Most sensible observers rightly approve of the SJC’s decision.

Some — including public defenders and the head of the Office of the Child Advocate — say the rule eliminates confusion and forces DCF to make a good-faith effort not to rush through investigations that could split families up.

“Making reasonable efforts to see if there are any services that can be offered that will allow a child to remain at home is probably a good thing,” said Maria Mossaides, the state’s Child Advocate. “This is going to cause people to think about what they’re doing and whether they have met their burden.”

And,

Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, lauded the decision and said it will help children and a cash-strapped DCF.

“At a time when DCF’s foster care system is operating beyond its true capacity,” Dsida said, “ensuring that DCF keeps children at home when they can stay there safely means that scarce foster care resources will remain available for children who really need them.”

It’s a point I’ve made many times. The more children taken by CPS who don’t need to be, the less time and resources are available for kids who do need state care. From Maine to California, child welfare agencies are strapped for cash and caseworkers are tasked with handling far too many cases to deal with effectively. Why add unnecessarily to their burdens?

Predictably, some disagree with the Court.

But Jennifer Layne of Community Voices, a victim’s advocacy group, said in an email that the SJC “keeps picking apart our laws and the only one it’s hurting is our children and the commonwealth.” She said the de­cision eff­ect­ively forces DCF to teach parents how to take care of their kids.

Actually, as many veteran child protective workers have pointed out, often, teaching “parents how to take care of their kids” is exactly the job of Massachusetts DCF and other CPS agencies. Indeed, Layne’s notion that the two – protecting children and teaching parents – are in some way antithetical is as wrong as wrong can be. Very often, due to poverty, lack of education or having been brought up in a dysfunctional family, parents just need a little guidance, a little teaching, knowledge of community services, etc. to significantly improve the care they give their kids. If caseworkers can provide that information, can put parents in touch with those resources, everyone is better off. The parents do a better job of parenting, kids are cared for better and CPS doesn’t have to devote resources to that family. What’s not to like?

Tomorrow I’ll give an example from another state that underlines the wisdom of the Massachusetts Court’s decision.

#childprotectiveservices, #parentalrights, #childabuse

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