By Lisa Hagen

MediaNews

BOSTON -- Area family-service providers are finding good things in the annual report by the state's Office of the Child Advocate, especially findings that family training and efforts for permanency in children's lives are necessary to help the state's foster children.

"We can't support kids without supporting the families," said Margaret Mahoney, clinical director at the Thom Anne Sullivan Center, an early-intervention service group in Lowell. "It is important recognizing the trauma and being able to help support children and families in trauma-informed ways."

The advocate's report drew attention this month when it identified 249 alleged cases of abuse or neglect of children in out-of-home settings. Of this number, 66 percent were related to neglect, 20 percent physical abuse, and 14 percent sexual abuse.

With most of these cases occurring in residential treatment centers, schools and licensed day-care programs, 70 of the reported allegations occurred in foster homes. Gail Garinger, head of the advocate's office, explained that many of these children are not in state custody, but instead receiving services from state agencies.

The advocate's group is notified about critical incidents, or deaths of injuries of children who receive services from state agencies. The reported summarized 88 critical incidents, which are down from 123 cases in 2011 and 107 cases in 2010.

"Our review of these reports (of abuse and neglect in out-of-home settings) has impressed upon us the importance of screening, training, and supervising foster parents as well as our child-serving workforce and adopting a trauma-informed approach to care," Garinger said.

Mahoney said agencies in Greater Lowell have been working together to help children and families, including both biological and foster parents.

"We can't support kids without supporting the families," she said. "It is an important recognizing the trauma and being able to help support children and families in trauma-informed ways."

Mahoney said the center annually serves about 1,300 children up to age 3. Children are eligible for early-intervention services due to disabilities, developmental delay or family risk factors. The center serves Greater Lowell including Dracut, Billerica and Tewksbury.

She said the center's prime mission is to help families, especially those that struggle with financial difficulties or homelessness.

"If we want to make sure our little ones are not in same situation as their parents are in now, we need the resources to support them," Mahoney said.

The report also highlights the need for permanent homes since the state's Department of Children and Families established the Permanency Planning Policy in July. This policy requires a timeline to place children into a new home especially if they are unable to return to their original home.

James Lister, executive director of The Plummer Home, which serves children in Lowell, the Merrimack Valley, and North Shore, is happy with the state report's emphasis on permanency, whether a child goes back to the biological family or finds a foster family who receives training and support from his staff.

"We make it a priority to do our best to make sure kids who come to any of our homes that that's their last stop in the child welfare system before permanency," said Lister, whose group runs a home and supported apartments for adolescent boys in Salem.

Lister said since his group provides lessons in preparing for adulthood, independent living skills, and academics. He believes permanency will eventually reduce the number of children in and out of foster care.

"We don't want to accept long-term foster care as a solution," he said. "It is critically important for kids to be at the table and have a voice in transition plans."