'They don't know what their rights are': WMass project helps parents keep custody of their kids
On an afternoon last January, a 49-year-old artist and mother named Cara was working a warehouse shift, one of two jobs she held to support her family. She was still sharing a house in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with her ex-partner and had left their 4-year-old daughter in his care.
But he got drunk, and Cara — not sure what to do — ended up calling the police.
Cara, who asked to keep her last name private, said she had already been in touch with a domestic violence organization about her ex. After the drinking incident, she said, that organization called the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).
“I thought that when DCF stepped in, that it would be an outside authority that could put this situation in control,” she said. “And it did the opposite.”
The state opened an investigation against Cara for child neglect, saying she should have known her ex might get drunk. That meant she could lose custody of her daughter.
She was shocked.
“I felt a little bit powerless. And I didn't have a lot of information," Cara said. "I was just winging it through this whole thing."
'What we're suggesting is, what if not so many cases went into the system?'
The Department of Children and Families is the state agency charged with keeping children safe. While it has the right to take children from their parents, by law the agency is supposed to do everything possible to keep them with their families. But many child advocates say, too often, that is not what happens.
Cara’s daughter is one of more than 40,000 children DCF keeps tabs on at any given time. According to the agency, most of them — 80% — live with their parents, while 20% — around 8.000 children — are sent into foster care or another form of state custody.
Those family separations are often considered a better-safe-than-sorry move to avoid a tragedy; in 2022, DCF found that 32 children died while they were involved in open cases.
But years of research shows that separating a child from their family, even briefly, can be traumatic and cause damage to their development. And advocates say many of those children are not in immediate danger.
According to the DCF annual report, of the almost 24,000 children the agency found to be maltreated in 2022, about 8% were victims of physical abuse.
“If it's not necessary to protect kids, then all we're doing is harming them,” said Susan Elsen, a child welfare specialist at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
And in recent years, temporary separations have often lasted longer because of a logjam in the courts — and a shortage of lawyers to represent low-income parents, especially in western Massachusetts.
“What we're suggesting is, what if not so many cases went into the system?” said attorney Madeline Blanchette.
Blanchette runs the Family Preservation Project in Springfield, which provides free legal help and social work to parents at risk of losing custody. Housed at the nonprofit Community Legal Aid, it was the first of 5 new pilot programs now operating across the state.
The statewide effort was launched in 2022 by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, based on a national model that started in Michigan 10 years ago.
Blending of neglect and poverty
The premise is that poverty, not parenting, is behind many child removals — and that intensive family support can prevent them.
Blanchette pointed to state data that shows low-income people — especially those of color — are accused of neglect disproportionately. According to DCF, Black children make up almost 13% of its caseload compared to 9% of the overall child population. Latino children make up 34% of the caseload but only 19% of the population.
“You can be charged with neglect of a child for not having enough food, for not having transportation to a medical appointment, for having inadequate living arrangements,” Blanchette said. “And that is the great majority of their cases, these folks who are trapped in that system based on the blending of neglect and poverty.”
Blanchette said the Family Preservation Project does not work with parents accused of child abuse, just neglect. In some cases, there could be substance use, or domestic violence by one partner against the other but not the child.
DCF would not grant NEPM an interview, but sent a statement saying the number of child removals has steadily declined over the past five years.
“One of the social worker’s primary roles is to refer parents to services in their community that will help them safely care for their children and keep the family together. This includes in-home therapy, substance use recovery, and parenting skills support,” the statement said.
But Elsen said DCF workers just don’t have the training or resources to solve the core problems that may have brought a family to their attention, such as a lack of child care or stable housing.
“And unfortunately, they're put into a system that isn't really able to deliver that," Elsen said. "So that's what these programs deliver."
'I’m a really good parent'
In many cases, DCF itself recommends the Family Preservation Project to parents. That’s how Cara — who now lives at her parents' condo in Chicopee — learned about the program. By then, she’d already been charged with neglect, although her daughter had not been removed.
“Nobody's perfect," she said. "But I'm a really good parent. And so I assumed that they would see that.”
She’d signed releases for DCF social workers to talk to her extended family, pediatrician, a taekwondo school, and her daughter’s day care center. As the process became more invasive, she felt like the state was looking for problems.
But when she started working with the Family Preservation Program, an advocate there told Cara she didn’t need to give DCF access to all her private information.
“She was able to tell us, ‘Oh, if you say this, they can do this and they don't need to know that. And they may ask you, but you don't have to answer that,’” Cara said. “That kind of thing really made it less scary.”
The Family Preservation Project also helped Cara negotiate what’s called a "safety plan" with DCF — a list of requirements parents must agree to in order to keep their children.
In Cara's case, a social worker with the Springfield project, Sophie Chambers, pushed back against requirements that didn't seem helpful or realistic, such as insisting Cara go to weekly therapy while she was juggling two jobs.
“It lands a little bit differently coming from a third party," Chambers said, "whereas if the parent says that themselves, what can happen is they get labeled as not being willing to engage with the action plan."
In the end, Cara and DCF agreed on a plan that would limit contact between her children and her ex, keeping an eye on his substance use. DCF closed her case.
“We were able to help her demonstrate to DCF that the children are, in fact, safe,” Chambers said.
Another client was 32-year-old Miozotti Cardona, a professional chef with three children under 13.
A few years ago, Cardona said, DCF had investigated her family because of domestic violence involving her children’s father. Then, more recently, on her way home from work, she got a surprise call from a DCF social worker.
“She was like, ‘Hi. I have to do a welfare check on you and the children’ and things like that,” Cardona recalled. “And then she said, ‘Have you had any issues with the father of your children?’”
Cardona said a new dispute with her ex-partner led to false claims of child neglect against her, which is why she contacted the Family Preservation Project. Again, Chambers intervened on her behalf.
“That involved having to do some educating of the DCF worker around what the dynamics were at play,” Chambers said.
After more negotiating around a safety plan, DCF quickly closed the case.
“It was a complete 360 from where we had started,” Cardona said.
'They don’t know what their rights are'
Cardona’s case was not as poverty-related as many of their cases, said Madeline Blanchette, the Springfield program director.
But Cardona believes her resources played a role. At the time, she was accused of allowing her children to take risky walks around her Holyoke neighborhood.
In some of their cases, Blanchette said, parents don't know how to access resources that would help them take care of their children, such as transportation, health insurance or food benefits. So her staff helps them do that.
And sometimes the help comes in the form of coaching parents how to behave at DCF social worker visits.
“We definitely don't ever want our clients to come off defensive or aggressive with the social worker,” said Amanda Echeverri, a parent advocate at the program.
But at the same time, she counsels them not to confide too much in DCF social workers, including their own worries about their children, because the agency could use that against them.
“They don't know what their rights are," Echeverri said. "And they're just up against an agency who holds a lot of power over them.”
Blanchette said, on occasion, DCF workers can seem frustrated at their involvement with cases, but that, on the whole, the process is very collaborative and the DCF office in western Massachusetts supports their work.
In a statement, DCF called the Family Preservation Project “an important addition to the Department’s referral resources and we look forward to the project’s expansion."
'What we see is actual risk'
Some officials do have concerns about the whole approach of providing families with legal advocates early in the process.
“They start from the assumption that it is always in the child's best interest to be raised by the family, [but] there are cases in which that is not the case,” said Maria Mossaides, director of the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate.
The office investigates when things go wrong for kids involved with the state.
“I know that the advocacy community conflates neglect with poverty," Mossaides said. "That is not what the Office of the Child Advocate sees. What we see is actual risk to children or imminent risk to children.”
Mossaides said programs like the Family Preservation Project can help families, especially immigrants, better communicate with DCF — similar to another new program, based at the nonprofit agency Plummer Youth Promise, that provides mediators to work with parents and the child welfare agency.
“It's helpful sometimes to have someone who can diffuse that interaction between the department who's trying to make a really tough decision,” she said.
But Mossaides said most of the cases her office reviews involve parents with substance use problems. She’s concerned the advocates could be too aggressive in siding with those parents and downplaying the risk to children.
“What I don't want is, it's just going to get more adversarial,” Mossaides said. “And what will happen is less cooperation, less willingness of a family to work with the department, which will inevitably lead to more children coming into custody.”
Elsen of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute is emphatic that providing intensive support — and keeping more families together — does prioritize children’s best interest.
But she acknowledges the Family Preservation Project is no panacea. Together, the five programs across the state can work with only a few hundred of the 40,000 children in the DCF caseload.
“It has to be somewhat resource-intensive to actually really make a difference in a family's life,” she said.
They only received two years of federal funding, which they’re hoping to extend. A more permanent solution, Elsen said, is for DCF itself to provide families the same intensive support as the Family Preservation Project, though that would likely require many more resources than the agency currently has.
"It could be a model for what a child welfare agency could do,” she said.
Still, Elsen said her organization is still evaluating how well the project is working.
At the Springfield location, out of 50 clients so far, all but one has kept custody of their children.