Overview of the Office of the Child Advocate

This section describes the makeup and responsibilities of the Office of the Child Advocate.

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The Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) was established in 2008 by Section 2 of Chapter 18C of the Massachusetts General Laws, which states,

There shall be an office of the child advocate which shall be independent of any supervision or control by any executive agency. The office shall:

(a) ensure that children involved with an executive agency, in particular, children served by the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, receive timely, safe and effective services;

(b) ensure that children placed in the care of the commonwealth or treated under the supervision of an executive agency in any public or private facility shall receive humane and dignified treatment at all times, with full respect for the child’s personal dignity, right to privacy, and right to a free and appropriate education in accordance with state and federal law.

In 2016, Section 2 of Chapter 18C was amended and added the following responsibilities to OCA:

The office shall . . .

(c) examine, on a system-wide basis, the care and services that executive agencies provide children; and

(d) advise the public and those at the highest levels of state government about how the commonwealth may improve its services to and for children and their families.

The office shall act to investigate and ensure that the highest quality of services and supports are provided to safeguard the health, safety and well-being of all children receiving services. The office shall examine systemic issues related to the provision of services to children and provide recommendations to improve the quality of those services in order to give each child the opportunity to live a full and productive life.

Section 51B(I) of Chapter 119 of the General Laws states that OCA should be notified of substantiated reports of abuse and/or neglect that have occurred at institutional (“out-of-home”) settings licensed or funded by the Commonwealth (see Appendix A).

OCA is headed by the Child Advocate. A 2016 amendment to Section 3 of Chapter 18C of the General Laws changed how the Child Advocate is appointed: rather than being appointed solely by the Governor (from a list of nominees submitted by a 14-person nominating committee, made up of representatives from both public and private organizations), the Child Advocate is now appointed through a majority vote of the Governor, Attorney General, and State Auditor.2

At the end of our audit period, OCA had seven employees. OCA received $800,000 in funding from the Commonwealth for fiscal year 2017 and $800,000 for fiscal year 2018.

Critical Incident Reports

Section 5 of Chapter 18C of the General Laws states that executive department agencies3 must inform OCA when a critical incident has occurred. Section 1 of Chapter 18C of the General Laws defines “critical incident” as follows:

(i) a fatality, near fatality or serious bodily or emotional injury of a child who is in the custody of or receiving services from an executive agency or a constituent agency; or (ii) circumstances which result in a reasonable belief that an executive agency or a constituent agency failed in its duty to protect a child and, as a result, the child was at imminent risk of, or suffered serious bodily or emotional injury or death.

A “near fatality” can only be designated as such by a hospital staff member and requires that the hospital staff member determine that a child has a life-threatening condition as a result of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect.

It should also be noted that OCA reviews and confirms critical incident report statistics with the various Executive Office of Health and Human Services agencies for OCA’s annual report, including the Department of Children and Families (DCF), Department of Developmental Services, Department of Public Health, Department of Youth Services, and Department of Mental Health. This process involves confirming the number and types of critical incidents reported by each agency.

Institutional Reports

Institutional reports (IRs) are reports of institutional abuse and/or neglect that has occurred in out-of-home settings connected to certain state agencies. These settings include licensed preschools and daycares, foster care environments, group homes, residential treatment programs, elementary and secondary schools, and youth correctional facilities. OCA receives IRs (51A and 51B reports) that have been investigated and supported by DCF. OCA staff members review every report to identify trends regarding the treatment of children in out-of-home settings and obtain more information from agencies when needed.

DCF gives OCA a list of case numbers associated with the IRs. OCA policy requires OCA’s program coordinator to retrieve IRs from i-FamilyNet (DCF’s case management database) using the case numbers provided by DCF, save a PDF of each report on an OCA shared drive, and record the report information in OCA’s database. Under OCA policy, every month the director of quality assurance must assign each IR to a staff member for review and hold a monthly meeting to review, analyze, and discuss each report. Each staff member is required to summarize their assigned cases, present them at the meeting, and highlight any questions or concerns that may require follow-up.

Complaint Line Contacts

Anyone with concerns about a child (age 12 or under) or youth (age 13–19) receiving services from a state agency can contact OCA, which can help them resolve their problems with the agency or identify appropriate resources. OCA can receive complaints in six ways: in person or by fax, email, postal mail, online complaint form, or telephone. The most common is telephone; the second most common is email. OCA’s “Complaint Line Policy” requires that all complaints be recorded in OCA’s database and that a staff member contact the complainant within 48 hours of receipt of a concern. Complaints totaled 398 in fiscal year 2017 and 356 in fiscal year 2018.

2.    Generally accepted government auditing standards require that organizations be free from organizational impairments to independence with respect to the entities they audit. Under Section 3 of Chapter 18C of the General Laws, the voting panel consists of three members, including the State Auditor. This disclosure is made for informational purposes only, and this circumstance did not interfere with our ability to perform our audit work and report its results impartially.

3.    Section 1 of Chapter 18C defines an executive agency as “a state agency within the office of the governor, including the executive office of education, the executive office of public safety and security, executive office of health and human services, and their constituent agencies, the Massachusetts interagency council on housing and homelessness and the executive office of housing and economic development.”

Date published: May 16, 2019