Bill Seeks Data To Define Disparities In Children's Services

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BOSTON (State House News Service) - Child welfare advocates and providers are imploring lawmakers to strengthen demographic data collected and reported by state agencies that interact with youth, with the goal of eliminating racial and ethnic disparities, among other inequities.

About 70 volunteers from the Children's League of Massachusetts nonprofit organization delivered folders detailing a litany of priority bills to all elected officials in the State House, including information on proposals from Rep. Paul Donato and Sen. Su Moran (H 153 / S 120) that would impose new responsibilities on the Office of the Child Advocate to protect at-youth risk.

fiscal 2022 annual report from the Department of Children and Families showed that Black and brown children are disproportionately overrepresented in the child welfare system. For example, there are nearly triple the amount of open DCF cases for Hispanic and Latinx children compared to white children, and about 2.4 times as many for Black children.

But Rachel Gwaltney, executive director of the Children's League of Massachusetts, wants more extensive reporting across state government to tackle "interconnected issues."

"How do we pinpoint where the disproportionality is occurring so that we can then take corrective action to address it?" Gwaltney told the News Service. "That's what this legislation is really meant to do."

The Office of the Child Advocate would need to develop a report on "disproportionality and inequity" in services at all child-serving agencies -- such as the Department of Youth Services, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Department of Development Services -- based on a wide range of data. That could encompass the number of children from low-income families being served, plus demographic information on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, transgender status and disability status, according to the bill.

In separate annual public reports, the office would outline recommendations to address inequities affecting youth, such as through data reporting systems, staff trainings on implicit bias, early intervention and preventative resources, school-based mental health referrals and transition services for children in foster care.

State agencies, in turn, must develop action plans for ensuring they are collecting accurate and comprehensive data, as well as implementing policies to overcome disparities.

"I believe our collective work remains clear -- to ensure that families have the resources and tools they need to thrive, and the child welfare system operates as efficiently and effectively as possible to keep kids safe and healthy, and that the state lives up to its responsibilities to the children, youth and families in its care," Gwaltney said during an opening program for the lobby day.

The Children's League of Massachusetts also supports bills to establish a Children's Cabinet within the governor's office and an independent Foster Care Review Office. A proposal from Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Sal DiDomenico (H 144 / S 75) to lift children out of deep poverty by increasing cash assistance grants for low-income families is backed by the organization, too.

The bills are awaiting a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. Sen. Robyn Kennedy, co-chair of the committee, emphasized the importance of state investments for child care providers and organizations to bolster the workforce pipeline.

"I also know that any policy, any issue that we're facing, if we do not begin by centering those most marginalized, those most impacted by the challenges, we are not going to ever reach 100 percent success," Kennedy said. "I know CLM is focused on looking at the systemic change, looking at making sure that every child has access to the right level of behavioral and mental health services -- and knowing the status quo is not good enough anymore."

Written By Alison Kuznitz/SHNS

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