Youth advocates in Massachusetts are raising concerns about a new initiative launched by Gov. Charlie Baker to limit coronavirus infections among children in foster care or other state custody by moving infected kids to designated facilities. The advocates warn that moving the kids without a plan for where they will go afterwards could damage the mental health of these already fragile youth.
Baker signed an executive order on Thursday that enables the Department of Early Education and Care, or EEC, to license residential sites to accommodate children and youth who have tested positive for COVID-19 coronavirus and can’t stay in their current residential placement. This order enables organizations like the Department of Children and Families, or DCF, and the Department of Youth Services to approve living spaces for young people who have tested positive. Under prior rules, a child who tested positive may simply have been banned from moving into a home.
“In these unprecedented times, the dedication of our residential program providers and educators has been truly commendable,” EEC Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said in a statement Thursday. “With [this] executive order, Governor Baker has enabled the Department of Early Education and Care to meet the needs of this community head-on.”
Sana Fadel, the Deputy Director of Massachusetts-based youth justice organization Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said she agreed with the order because it solves "an immediate problem, a time-specific problem that is happening because of the COVID-19 virus.” But Fadel and other advocates say the state already has a problem providing stability for youth who have been removed from their homes, and moving them for health issues may exacerbate that.
“One of the biggest problems we have in Massachusetts is that kids are bouncing from foster home to foster home, and we’re one of the worst states in the country on that issue” Fadel said. “And with the COVID-19 issue, it adds an extra layer to it.”
Debbie and Cristina Freitas are Lowell-based attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice and child welfare cases for the state’s Committee for Public Counsel Services, or CPCS. “We have a lot of specific concerns,” Cristina said in an interview Saturday. “This policy contemplates moving a child from the placement where they're currently living, moving them to an emergency placement, and then … I'm not sure what happens after that,” she said. “It's not clear where the child will be returning to, whether that's home, or their previous facility, or some other facility.”
Transferring young people through multiple placements in various living situations can be extremely damaging, according to Michael Dsida, who oversees the Children and Family Law Division of the CPCS. “In some respects, the trauma never ends for them, when DCF is moving them without the sort of protections that they need for their mental health,” Dsida said in an interview Saturday. “It's obviously important for DCF to be concerned about their physical health, but this process seems to reflect a lack of sensitivity to the implications of moves like this on the mental health of children and young adults.”
The Massachusetts EEC and DCF did not immediately respond to requests for comment and clarification of their initial statement.
Fadel says Citizens for Juvenile Justice has been meeting with Baker administration consistently to address issues like the foster care system, and new issues that have arisen, like families rejecting foster children out of a fear that they might spread the virus. “We have heard of cases where kids cannot go back to their foster home or find a new foster home, and they need to get an emergency shelter for a teenager,” Fadel said. “Their needs are not being met, and they're at a greater risk now.”
Fadel says she hopes the preexisting systemic issues highlighted by the pandemic are talked about in a long-term context after the emergency order is over. “It’s always been unsafe for these young people to be homeless,” Fadel said. “But now if they're going to be homeless, they're going to be medically unsafe as well.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Sana Fadel supports Baker's executive order.