Mass. House Passes DCF Rules; Rep. Vargas Says Child Deaths in Haverhill Demonstrates Need

State Rep. Andy X. Vargas. (Courtesy photograph.)

State Rep. Andy Vargas says the death of a four-week-old baby boy last year and baby girl this year in Haverhill underscores the need to strengthen laws governing the state’s Department of Children and Families.

Last week, the Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a bill, “An Act relative to accountability for vulnerable children and families,” that addresses the needs of the vulnerable population served by DCF, Vargas said. He added the crisis has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and “further illuminated through the lens of racial equity.”

The four-week-old baby boy, part of an open DCF case, died while living with a biological parent in a shelter. He was found unresponsive and later was pronounced dead at a hospital. In February, Vargas said, DCF received a report that opened an investigation into the circumstances that led to the death of a baby girl.

“Learning about the deaths of these young children in our community was heartbreaking. Although DCF has not been found responsible for these deaths, the agency does have a serious and firm responsibility to keep kids safe. The measures in this bill will create more accountability and give us more information on the steps the department is taking to protect our children and their lives,” said Vargas.

Specifically, the bill strengthens DCF policies and operations; develops a tool to retain and recruit foster families; holds DCF accountable for timely, accurate and relevant reports; and clarifies communication by the child advocate to the legislature and state officeholders. Additionally, the bill calls for a public service campaign to increase awareness of child abuse and neglect.

The bill also included a Vargas amendment, that requires DCF to report information on its Central and Regional Youth Advisory Boards, including any recommendations made by the boards relative to the department’s services, policies and practices, and any action the department has taken to address those recommendations.

“Input from youth directly served by DCF is an exceptionally valuable tool for improving the department’s work. Research shows us that youth civic engagement has very positive outcomes for their futures and socioeconomic conditions. If we want to improve youth outcomes with DCF, we have to ask them what those experiences are like,” said Vargas.

The legislation also compels data to analyze the impacts of remote learning on all children during the COVID-19 crisis with a focus on understanding the disparate educational impacts on children served by DCF.  The bill now moves on to the Senate.

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