A Child Left Behind

Just a week ago, in the midst of the Department of Children & Families (DCF) controversy that began when 5 year old Jeremiah Oliver disappeared from his Fitchburg home late last year, a couple of things came to light. Over 95 children either directly or indirectly in DCF custody have died and it was found that many foster parents approved by DCF have criminal records, including sex offenses..

In the middle of this tragedy is a 14 year old boy in Mattapan. According to reports, DCF was involved with the family and apparently made more than one attempt to remove the older boy from the home and the DCF social worker involved with the family visited them 8 days before the shooting. DCF may not be to blame for this tragedy, but either way you slice it, the deaths of 95 children is a major failing of an agency who claims to act with the best interests of children in mind.

I have been personally touched by one of those children. Just two years ago last month, my goddaughter Lily died in DCF custody and her parents were never given a solid explanation for her death. Ironically, she was taken from the people who, according to them, put Lily at risk. I believe I’ve told the story of her parents, Randy and Nicky, once before. They were homeless and couldn’t seem to catch a break: every shelter wanted to separate them. They were married and it’s hard to leave your loved one when you’re on the street together. In mid-November, Nicky went into labor. They both checked in at a local hospital. Because of her nerves, Nicky made the mistake of taking something that would calm her down. Naturally after Lily was born they found the substance in her bloodstream and the law requires the hospital to notify DCF, which filed a 51A and took custody of Lily.

Both parents were told the main reason Lily was being taken from them was that they were homeless and had no-where to go, even though DCF claims to work with families to keep them together. Now Nicky and Randall aren’t hardened criminals, just homeless. Why wouldn’t DCF work with them to find a suitable program so they could eventually get on their feet and get back their child? Instead, both had to find a shelter and be content with supervised visits with Lily. Two weeks before Lily died she developed a sore on her belly and when Randy inquired about it, they were both told that Lily had been checked out and it was nothing. Two weeks later, she was gone.

There wasn’t any real explanation as to how or why she had died. DCF provided funds for a funeral and a graveside was donated, and that was that. Cold. Unfeeling. Done. When a Rep from DCF talked to the three of us about Lily’s death, she seemed more concerned about a lawsuit than comforting her parents. Today Randy and Nicky are divorced, still homeless and battling the demons that come with the loss of a child.

One of the things that has stuck with me was Nicky’s fear of DCF even before they became involved. When her first husband died she lost everything and voluntarily gave custody of her eldest child to DCF until she could pull things together. When she did, DCF had already put her daughter in foster care. Although Nicky has visitation rights, the foster mother is very hostile to her and takes away visitation rights when she feels like it. Even at Lily’s funeral the foster mother nearly refused Nicky the right to spend a moment with her only child, and DCF said nothing.

I know especially poor or homeless women that live in constant fear of DCF taking away their children or stripping them of their parental rights. You shouldn’t fear an agency that’s supposed to help you. Many former foster kids that I talk too tell me that a lot of these so-called foster parents are in it for the money. According to a couple of websites DCF pays foster parents around $556 for a two-year-old and $659 for a 16-year-old, So if you have four foster kids, that’s a nice sum of money. Not to mention that there is also money given for clothing, birthdays and holidays. These figures are from 2007, so they’re probably a lot higher now.

Many kids become homeless after they age out of the system, so what happens then? Some are calling for the Head of the DCF to resign. Truth be told, this is not entirely her fault. She’s only been in charge for a few months and it takes years to manufacture a train wreck like this. But it doesn’t show me a lot when the Governor is defending the policies that allow criminals to be foster parents. Saying that DCF deals with the most difficult parents and children is no damn excuse. My goddaughter’s parents weren’t difficult and how difficult can a newborn be? The DCF just needs to do its job, and Governor Patrick just needs to fix this broken system. Unfortunately it may be to late for little Jeremiah Oliver, DCF victim 96.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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