Jane Lyons: The long wait for what’s right — child welfare on margins in Massachusetts

Last modified: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

HADLEY — It just hit me. If a person went to a hospital emergency room and wasn’t treated for days or months, we would all be outraged. If there were inadequate numbers of staff to treat us, or a family member or friend, we would demand that the hospital be equipped to do its job.

We would demand that well-trained medical professionals be available whenever needed to treat us because we feel entitled to expect safe, quality care — and we should.

After 30-plus years as a child advocate in Massachusetts, I have to ask where children stand on this “value” scale. Children in our state who have been abused or neglected cannot pick up a phone and ask for help, nor should they have to. They are children. They are loyal to parents who should take care of them and provide for their safety and well-being, but for various reasons are unable or unwilling to do so.

They depend on caretakers to do what’s right and the grown-ups around them, and in charge, to implement policies that create safe and nurturing environments for them. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to protect children.

Sounds basic, doesn’t it?

But here we are. Over one year ago, a 5-year-old boy named Jeremiah Oliver died because the grown-ups in his life failed to protect him. And while changes have been made, there has not been enough change to appropriately meet the needs of children who look to the state for safety. There are still not enough well-trained social workers to protect children and there are still not enough judges and attorneys available to ensure that legal rights of children and parents are protected while determining issues of child safety and rights of parents.

State Department of Children & Families workers charged with protecting children on behalf of the Commonwealth are reporting some of the highest caseloads in the history of the agency.

Through informational pickets, they are telling us they cannot keep children safe. They are telling us that they are confronted not only with rising numbers of children needing their protection, but these children’s parents are confronting drug addiction, domestic violence and significant mental health issues. They cannot help children and families when they are responsible for upwards of 100 individuals per worker. They cannot keep kids safe when they can’t go home, but there is no place to put them.

In central Massachusetts, colleagues state that the Juvenile Court is scheduling trial dates three years from now to determine if an abused or neglected child’s parents are able to safely care for them. There are so many vulnerable children and families needing help that waiting lists are backed up.

As executive director of Friends of Children, a nonprofit child advocacy agency working every day to protect the best interests of vulnerable children, speaking the truth is step one. We are leading a group of dedicated child advocates statewide (professional and volunteer) to work on those next steps and make sure effective oversight is in place.

Without acting on what we know is needed, there can be no change for children. No one is looking for quick fixes; but the present tempo needs to increase. There is no real sense of urgency for an issue that is, in fact, urgent. All of us — including caseworkers, child advocates, the state worker’s union, policymakers, and voters who care about the rights of all citizens, including children — need to care enough to work together and support ways to provide the services that we already know are needed now.

Vulnerable children entrusted to the state’s care need all of us, as grown-ups, to champion their most basic rights. If this isn’t a clarion call for every one of us to speak up for children to ensure their safety and best chances for a productive future, what is?

Let’s not make children wait to realize their most basic rights. Calling your local leaders today and asking how you can help them do what’s right could be one step.

And for other ideas, contact Friends of Children at friendsofchildreninc.org.

Jane Lyons is executive director of Friends of Children in Hadley.


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