Gov. Baker eliminates controversial DCF two-tier system for at-risk children

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is eliminating a controversial two-track system that determines how safe abused and neglected children are with caretakers after the deaths of 10 minors over a five-year period who were placed in a “lower-risk” category, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.

Baker said the new policy, to begin Feb. 1, will require social workers to investigate safety risks of all at-risk children in the same way and then determine how best to respond. The two-tier system was created in 2009 to differentiate between children in imminent danger from those whose families simply need help to become more stable.

“We must give the people who work in the department the tools and the guidance they need to support every child and family that is in need of our assistance,” Baker said at a press conference in the state house.

Listen to DCF commissioner Linda Spears, Gov. Charlie Baker, and DCF chapter president of SEIU local 509 discuss the elimination of the two-tier

The announcement is part of a series of changes to DCF policies meant to keep children safe, following a string of high profile child deaths. Reforms include reducing the time it takes to evaluate reports of abuse and neglect from three days to one day and providing social workers clear guidelines on how to assess risk — including requiring criminal checks of all parents and caregivers and a review of prior DCF involvement.

The policy changes come two months after a report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published in the Boston Globe, revealed that 10 children who died of abuse and neglect between 2009 and 2013 had been put in a “family-friendly” program that relied on lesser-trained social workers who didn’t do a full investigation into maltreatment allegations.

The two-track system, part of a national movement, has long been criticized by state social workers who say it puts more emphasis on keeping families together than on child safety; state workers also have voiced concern that children put on a lower-risk track would fall through the cracks.

Peter MacKinnon, DCF chapter president of the state social worker’s union, said Tuesday he was relieved to see the program disbanded. “Now every family will be treated the same,” he said. “It’s the right way to do it.”

Two weeks ago, the Boston-based Pioneer Institute published a report urging for a major overhaul of the two-tier system, also known as “differential response,” saying that new research shows that the system “presents grave concerns with respect to child safety.”

Gregory Sullivan, co-author of the 32-page study, said the New England Center report unveiled a problem largely unknown in state policy circles. The Pioneer report examined 16 geographical regions in the country, including Massachusetts, and found that most children were assigned to a track based only on information received from a phone call from someone concerned about alleged abuse or neglect.

Sullivan praised the governor’s plan, saying it went further than the free-market driven one Pioneer Institute envisioned. He said that although new plans will be costly, child safety is an area where government shouldn’t cut corners.

“Some people will say how can you afford to do that. How can you afford not to do that?” he asked.

There is no national data tracking deaths of children who had been placed on a lower-risk track. But there have been enough incidents, here and elsewhere, to lead some child welfare advocates to question the idea of a two-tier system. In Minnesota, for example, the murder of a 4-year-old boy who had been placed on the lower-risk track prompted statewide scrutiny and recommendations to narrow, and perhaps do away with, the two-tier program.

Daniel Heimpel, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Fostering Media Connection, who has written extensively on the topic, said he expects more states to back away from the system following increased scrutiny about safety. The program, he said, “has not proven it can adequately keep children safe.”

Here is a copy of the governor’s press release. To read NECIR’s story, click here.

NECIR intern Bianca Padro contributed to this report.