Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has proposed a plan to create a separate Child Protection Division within the Department of Children and Families (DCF). This new division would be empowered to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect with a sole focus on the safety of the child or children involved.
Coakley, who as former Chief of the Child Abuse Unit in the Middlesex District Attorney’s office and as Attorney General, fought for legislation that increased penalties for predators who abuse children.
“As Governor, I will be committed to implementing the crucial changes needed to help ensure that no child is the victim of preventable sexual, physical, or serious emotional abuse,” said Coakley.
The DCF is currently charged with “protecting children from abuse and neglect” but is also tasked with “strengthening families.” This dual mandate can create tension for workers, supervisors and managers, who must balance concerns about the safety of a child, on the one hand, against the imperative of keeping families together.
“DCF’s record of protecting children while successfully supporting families has improved over the past decade, thanks to the leadership of Governor Patrick and the tireless efforts of the frontline social workers who are “on the ground” every day,” said Coakley. “But we must be proactive about better protecting every child. Right now, a child who is the victim of abuse or neglect may not have someone involved in his or her case who looks out only for the child’s safety. During my career, I have seen, day in and day out, how the current structure of DCF puts children at risk and overburdens social workers; the creation of an independent Child Protection Division will go a long way towards addressing these issues.”
Under Coakley’s plan, reports of potential child abuse and neglect would come into DCF and be screened using existing frameworks. A small number of cases are immediately referred to the District Attorney’s office for criminal investigation, often involving Sexual Assault Intervention Network (SAIN) teams. For those cases that remain with DCF, if it is determined that the child or children involved are at risk of continued abuse or neglect, the case would immediately be referred to the newly created Child Protection Division. The Child Protection Division would investigate the claim with a singular focus on the welfare of the child or children.
Depending on the determination of the Child Protection division, there are several potential outcomes: the state may initiate proceedings to remove the child from the home, the state may refer the matter to a District Attorney for a criminal prosecution against the abuser or abusers, or, if it is eventually determined that the child is not at imminent risk, DCF may help connect the family with supports that will allow the child to remain in the home.