Governor Patrick Signs Child Welfare Bill Into Law
Law establishes Office of the Child Advocate, Stiffens Penalties
"This bill reinvigorates our child welfare system," said Governor Patrick. "In addition to establishing in law our Office of the Child Advocate, it pushes all of us to do better by our children."
The Child Advocate is empowered to investigate, review, monitor and evaluate critical incidents of child abuse or neglect. The Child Advocate is also authorized to review any agency investigation of a critical incident and conduct its own independent investigations, if needed.
"There is no greater task before us than protecting the most vulnerable and, with this law, we will help establish the right framework to better handle the most disturbing cases and hopefully prevent them from even happening," said House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. "This bill is the result of two years of investigations, detailed analysis and study and I commend my colleagues for their commitment to seeing it through to this important day."
"This new law represents comprehensive reform of the Commonwealth's child welfare services and will have immediate impact on the safety of our children," Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. "It provides increased oversight and accountability, and incorporates best practices from agencies across the nation, giving us the tools to better prevent tragedies and make sure that children grow up in happy, healthy and safe environments."
Among the provisions of the bill are:
- Extended services for those in foster care between the ages of 18 and 22 who would have ordinarily "aged out" of the system. Foster care children will also be eligible to receive tuition and fee waivers at all state colleges and community colleges.
- Increased penalties for people who work with children and fail to report instances of suspected child abuse-so called mandated reporters-in two ways. The penalty for filing a frivolous report increases from $1,000 to $2,000 for a first offense, and authorizes imprisonment for a subsequent offense. It also increases the penalty for willfully failing to file a report of child abuse that results in serious harm or death to a child from $1,000 to $5,000, and two and half years in prison.
- Establishment of a foster care registry to track the success of foster parents in the state system. The system can search for relatives or other adult individuals who have positively influenced a child's life.
- Change in the name of the Department of Social Services to the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and targeting issues of racial inequality within the department.
- Establishment of a commission to study the status of grandparents raising their grandchildren.
- The opening of court proceedings for end-of-life treatment of certain children in DCF custody to the public, requiring the submission of written expert opinions to the court, clarifying the DCF commissioner's role in determining the agency's recommendation, allowing for the recommendation of the child's parent or guardian and appointment of a guardian ad litem on behalf of the child; and allowing for an interlocutory appeal of these end-of-life court orders.
- A mandated review by the Department of Children and Families after three abuse and neglect reports on a family in three months or in one year, and requires review results to be submitted to the local district attorney, local law enforcement and the child advocate.
- Establishment of an interagency child welfare taskforce that the Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services will chair to coordinate and streamline services to children and families who are receiving services.
- A requirement that social workers who are employed by the Department of Children and Families have a bachelor's degree, and supervisors have a master's degree.
In addition to the responsibilities previously set forth in Governor Patrick's December 2007 Executive Order, the child welfare bill grants the Child Advocate subpoena power and establishes confidentiality protections for any individual working for or assisting the Child Advocate in any investigation.
"Our responsibility and commitment to the children and families we serve is at the heart of the work of our agencies," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. JudyAnn Bigby. "With these new powers and responsibilities, the Child Advocate will be better able to further strengthen our work on behalf of children across the Commonwealth."
In March, Governor Patrick named Judge Gail Garinger as the state's first Child Advocate. After several years in private practice, Judge Garinger was appointed to the Juvenile Court in 1995. In 2001, Chief Justice Martha Grace appointed Judge Garinger First Justice of the Juvenile Court in Middlesex County, the largest county in the Commonwealth. In that capacity, Judge Garinger coordinated six judges and oversaw 25 sessions at four different court sites in Cambridge, Framingham, Lowell and Waltham. She worked with the Clerk Magistrate, the Chief of Probation and all levels of court personnel in an effort to provide fair and respectful justice to the juveniles and their families who appear in the courts.