By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- As controversy continues to surround the Department of Children and Families, lawmakers listened Tuesday to supporters of a legislative proposal to improve care for foster children, which includes creating an expert panel to review child abuse and neglect cases.

The panel would review cases of children in the same family who repeatedly enter DCF's care during a 12-month period, and determine if any action needs to be taken to protect the children from further harm. The panel would also report any trends in the families; any gaps in services observed by the panel, and recommend policy changes to prevent repeated abuse and neglect, according to Maria Mossaides, chair of the Children's League of Massachusetts.

In the wake of the disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy while under the department's care, Gov. Deval Patrick said Monday he is looking for "actionable" recommendations from the Child Welfare League of America - the organization the Patrick administration has asked to review operations at the embattled state agency.

Authorities have been unable to locate Jeremiah Oliver, and fear he is dead. His disappearance came to light when the boy's sister told Fitchburg school officials she and her siblings were being abused and that when she last saw Jeremiah he was bleeding. The Department of Children and Families acknowledged that the social worker assigned to the case did not visit the home as required, and last saw the little boy months ago. DCF fired the social worker and two supervisors.

Despite early suggestions from the Patrick administration that the Oliver case was an isolated lapse, evidence has mounted in recent weeks that point to more pervasive problems at the agency.

Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chair of the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee, told the News Service Tuesday he hopes the Child Welfare League provides a comprehensive report because it likely will influence lawmaker's decisions about how much money to provide the department in the annual state budget.

"That report may well determine the amount of legislative support for additional staffing, and so the report is going to carry with it a lot of moral authority. But there's a lot of responsibility that goes with it," Barrett said after a legislative hearing. "I just hope they do a good job. I have no reason to feel pessimistic."

Lawmakers anticipate the report in April, the same month they debate the fiscal year 2015 budget.

Barrett said he met Monday with staff from CWL, and was pleased with their understanding of the issues.

"They know that the stakes are very high for kids, primarily, but also for legislative and executive branch credibility. I believe they're going to do an exhaustive job and take a global look at all reasonable contributing factors," Barrett said.

During Tuesday's hearing, Mossaides told lawmakers that changes proposed in the bill (H 85/S 27), sponsored by Rep. Nick Collins (D-South Boston) and Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn), will lead to better protection for children in DCF care.

Collins, a member of the committee, said although he filed the bill at the beginning of the legislative session, the "timing is appropriate and rather dire."

The proposed expert panel would fall under the purview of the Office of Child Advocate. Under current law, the Office of Child Advocate is permitted, although not required, to investigate any incidents where a child is seriously injured. The legislation would mandate OCA investigate all "critical" incidents involving injuries.

Erin Bradley, executive director of the Children's League of Massachusetts, said the legislation is not a reaction to the controversy surrounding DCF, but was developed more than two years ago by agencies across the state.

"This was a comprehensive review of things that can be done to improve the quality of life for the children in care and custody of state," Bradley said.

Collins said the legislation also aims to improve communication across agencies.

The legislation restructures the Child Welfare Task Force, the body responsible for coordinating services to children and families. The task force is also required to examine access to health services, child care, as well as training for staff, communities and providers. 

The bill expands the task force's goals to include increasing access to after-school programs, school sports and summer camps, as well as providing workforce opportunities for foster care children with small businesses. The task force would also look at transportation to these programs.

Cheryl Haddad, a foster care mother who has taken care of more than 160 children, described the need for extracurricular activities, and how they can change a child's life who has never been exposed to childhood rites like play dates or dance lessons.

Many of the children in foster care "don't know how to be children," Haddad said. Increased opportunities for extracurricular activities would provide normalcy for foster kids, she said.

"These things are extremely important to try to parent these kids," Haddad said.

She told lawmakers the story of 5-year-old twins she cared for who were taken away from their heroin-addicted mother. When the social worker arrived at Haddad's home with the children in the car, she could hear them screaming, "I'm going to get burned. I'm going to get burned," she said.

She found out their mother would lock them in a closet, and made them believe if they went outside they would be burned. The twins refused to play outside, she said.

Haddad said someone had given her a membership to the Boston Science Museum, where she took the children to learn about nature. Eventually, after gaining comfort from what they learned at the museum, they went outside to play, she said.

"It was very important to have that museum pass to get them to go outside," Haddad said.

The legislation also revamps the makeup of the task force, currently made up of state agencies only. The new configuration would include two social workers, two provider agencies, and two parents of children formerly in foster care.

"Adding these voices to the conversation will provide foster children with the voice they otherwise do not have," Mossaides said.