And the Obama administration, which is charged with overseeing the state, did little to hold local officials accountable, the report charges.
“Massachusetts is supposed to be a liberal state with a heart. And Massachusetts doesn’t give a damn because these kids don’t have any juice. They don’t have a lobbyist and they don’t have any stakeholders,” said Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI) at the University of San Diego School of Law, which led the research of the report, “Shame on U.S.”
According to 2009 federal data, Massachusetts failed to hit minimum standards in six of seven different measures, including protecting foster kids from abuse and keeping children “safely maintained” in their homes where possible, the report states.
“It’s a Catch-22: (federal officials) have decided not to enforce statutes and not to withhold money from anybody for violations that Massachusetts and other states are doing. And kids are dying as a result,” Fellmeth said.
Advocates and lawmakers have pushed a raft of reforms at the state’s Department of Children and Families, where a string of deaths of children under its care exposed problems ranging from faulty policies to rampant mismanagement.
Many of the issues first cropped up in a federal lawsuit brought by the advocacy group Children’s Rights, which sued the state in 2010 to force a number of court-ordered changes, only to have the case dismissed. The group appealed, but an appellate court again ruled against it in December 2014, noting in its decision that the federal Department of Health and Human Services has the power to withhold funding if the state doesn’t comply certain requirements.
“No one in this case wants the secretary to cut off the roughly $60 million Massachusetts receives from HHS,” the appellate court decision read.
And that is the problem, Fellmeth said. CAI’s report shows that the state failed to correct problems years after the feds first highlighted them, yet never saw federal funds cut as a result.
Cayenne Isaksen, spokeswoman for interim DCF Commissioner Erin Deveney, defended the agency, and argued that the CAI report is using outdated information. State officials pointed to a May 2013 letter from the feds congratulating them on completing a so-called “program improvement plan” that brought DCF above national standards in several areas.
“While we have made significant progress,” Isaksen said, “we have more work to do, and the new administration is performing an in depth review of the department.”