Image by Kent Buckley
It seems like the bad news never ceases at the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families. Revelations of death, neglect, and the abuse of children under the supposed care of government bureaucracy permeate headlines alongside reports of an overworked, understaffed department that is responsible for some of the most vulnerable members of society. The latest news even overlaps with the opioid epidemic, as an ever-increasing number of children—who are taken from an ever-increasing number of addicts—are untrackable in the DCF’s current system.
The lack of support that these children receive is heartbreaking and confounding, and yet not entirely surprising. Americans like to believe that we help the tired and poor (the huddled masses), but time and again these people slip through our safety net—even when they’re children. To make matters worse, navigating the foster care system is a perilous task, one that too often involves abuse and neglect instead of the salvation these kids need.
In researching the state of the death penalty in America recently, I have noticed, in story after story about death row inmates, that they often have similar traits to children under state supervision. The childhoods of those who have committed heinous crimes are commonly riddled with abuse, with adolescents and infants alike being shuffled around. In a TED Talk by David R. Dow, the death row defense attorney outlines the chapters in these tragic stories, parsing life before capital punishment into five parts: prenatal, early childhood, grades K-5, grades 6-12, and their time in the juvenile justice system. Dow asks: What if we can intervene before the defendant writes his most violent chapters?
Dow says he presents his talk to pro- and anti-capital punishment crowds alike because his point—that it’s always best to act before the violent crime ever happens—is something we can all agree on. Likewise, we can agree that the DCF is in a sorry state. Fortunately, Governor Charlie Baker and his reinvigorated agency are taking steps to change things; as they grapple with the broken system though, it’s important to remember that violence doesn’t erupt in a vacuum. To repair the DCF and the Commonwealth’s foster care system, we need to catch these stories in the early chapters, and to make sure the books aren’t written.
Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Emily Hopkins is BINJ projects coordinator.
Copyright 2015 Emily Hopkins. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.