Did Massachusetts Fail Alleged Murderer Donald Rudolph?
YOUNG PEOPLE IN MASSACHUSETTS who turn 18 while in foster care have a choice. They can strike out on their own, return to a family situation that’s often just as chaotic as it was when they were younger, or request to continue to receive DCF assistance. In 2011, 794 youths turned 18 while in foster care, and 615 of them, 77 percent, elected to continue receiving assistance (though just 457 remain in placement today).
Until they turn 23, the department offers these individuals services such as continued foster placement, independent living programs, a modest daily stipend ($25), and access to resources such as counseling, tutoring, and educational support. State officials say that in the past five years, Massachusetts has increased its spending on them to more than $60 million (the department’s total budget is nearly $790 million). Then again, though aged-out youths make up 16 percent of the people in DCF’s care, that $60 million represents just 8 percent of the department’s budget. DCF commissioner Angelo McClain points to a number of programs that were added in that five-year period, including a network of foster care alumni, a Foster Child Bill of Rights, more internship and summer employment programs, and housing and life-skills training.
But here’s the problem: The state’s efforts to help youths in its care transition successfully to adulthood are largely ineffective.
The Boston Foundation conducted a study of the problem in 2008, and its findings were bleak: 37 percent of former foster kids older than 18 had experienced homelessness; 54 percent were unemployed, and half of those with jobs worked fewer than 20 hours a week; 30 percent had been threatened or injured with a weapon; 25 percent had been arrested in the prior 12 months; and 11 percent reported being raped. Unsurprisingly, 59 percent of the teens surveyed in the study reported feeling “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row,” an indicator of depression. That was four years ago, and the state has added new programs since then, but with numbers this daunting, they can only have done so much to help.
Of course, these problems are hardly unique to Massachusetts. A number of studies have shown that somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of all prisoners nationally are former foster children. But experts say that Massachusetts child services, for all its efforts, suffers from two main problems: a lack of focus and a lack of money. For starters, DCF is severely understaffed — the typical caseworker deals with close to 16 families at a time and, though the state has a program designed to help those caseworkers reach aged-out kids, that program employs fewer than 20 counselors. Given those ratios, only a lucky few get the assistance of a personal mentor.
In its report, the Boston Foundation observed that when it comes to new legislation aimed at helping adolescents and young adults, “the difficulty seems to be in implementing these policies into consistent practice.” Again, that study is four years old, but those who have seen the department up close believe it continues to be true. Martha Henry, who directed the state-run Center for Adoption Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School before it was defunded last year, saw DCF from the inside, training its employees. “I think they wanted to be progressive,” Henry says, “but I’m not sure it always trickled down to the field.” She says the department also suffers from “initiative overload,” meaning swarms of new policies are never completely absorbed and practiced by field-level social workers. In some cases, she says, upper management would be preaching one policy, and the fieldworkers would be practicing its exact opposite. Henry, for instance, recalls repeatedly finding that caseworkers were reluctant to allow adolescents to sleep over at a friend’s house out of a belief that the friend’s parents would need background checks. Not only was this untrue, Henry says, it also went against a principle being championed at the highest level of DCF: that adolescents in foster care should experience “normal” activities with their peers.