May 29, 2024

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A 15-year-old stayed in a hospital for 40 days. The reason? The state child welfare agency had no place to put him.

11 min read
A 15-year-old stayed in a hospital for 40 days. The reason? The state child welfare agency had no place to put him.

For decades, Massachusetts’ child welfare disaster has meant little ones shuttled around the point out in the back seats of workers’ cars and trucks or sleeping on couches and bean luggage in agency offices. But amid a persistent shortage of group house beds, foster homes, and other placements, the point out is also keeping youngsters in hospitals for up to weeks or months on stop, even when they’ve been medically cleared to go away.

The unexpected emergency department at UMass Memorial HealthAlliance Clinic Leominster. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Team

The little one welfare company phone calls it a very last resort for little ones who are waiting until finally a further appropriate placement opens up. But quite a few of the state’s hospitals and unexpected emergency departments are by now swamped by workforce shortages, new clients, and minimal means, and it is put their own beds — which can value a thousand pounds a night or far more — in progressively brief supply.

“It’s a travesty, an complete failure,” mentioned David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Affiliation, which represents 23,000 health treatment gurus all-around the condition. “Right now, it is a war zone in numerous unexpected emergency departments. . . . And to put young ones in these chaotic predicaments when they are by now traumatized? It tends to make no perception.”

DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman did not solution inquiries about how many little ones in its custody are boarding in crisis departments because they are ready for a non-healthcare facility placement. But general, the range of children included with the company who are waiting in hospitals has risen appreciably, according to company data.

For every of the previous six months of 2022, extra than two dozen kids on common ended up in inpatient beds for “administratively vital” stays, which means they have been in any other case completely ready to be discharged — a 40 {b574a629d83ad7698d9c0ca2d3a10ad895e8e51aa97c347fc42e9508f0e4325d} raise because the start out of the pandemic. Through the exact time period of time, the typical amount of this sort of little ones “boarding” in emergency departments — waiting for placements or for inpatient beds — grew by 60 per cent.

A spokesperson for the Leominster healthcare facility declined to remark, citing affected person privacy regulations. Grossman, of DCF, also declined to focus on specifics of James’s case, citing condition and federal privateness necessities.

In a assertion, she mentioned the condition has begun producing several changes to support minimize the number of little ones boarding in emergency departments, including extra funding for new beds and seeking to present other mental wellness solutions outdoors of clinic options.

“For children in custody of the Section of Little ones and Families (DCF) who need a bigger amount of psychological or behavioral well being cure than DCF foster care can supply, DCF functions with multiple point out organizations to come across correct placements,” Grossman mentioned.


When James entered the UMass Memorial Health and fitness clinic in Oct, neither he — nor his spouse and children — had any idea he wouldn’t see daylight again for nearly a month and a fifty percent.

At very first, he was instructed he was being held there for a psychiatric analysis, explained James’s mother, Marie, who had voluntarily sought the state’s assistance in late 2021 to support supervise her son, whose anger administration, truancy, and other challenges anxious her. (The Globe is referring to both by their center names to shield their privateness. James declined to examine his hospital stay, but his mother shared facts, e-mails, and information with the Globe.)

Inside of times of James’s arrival, medical center personnel decided he was not in crisis, information show. But without yet another placement obtainable, his social employee could not transfer him, leaving him stuck for various more months.

“I felt helpless,” said Marie. “He was just staying held there.”

The scarcity of spots to home children caught up in the state’s kid welfare procedure is not new. But it has develop into far more tough through the pandemic, especially in swaths of Western and Central Massachusetts.

According to agency details, DCF spots on average 5,300 little ones in foster care each individual year, quite a few of them initially relocated devoid of court docket orders. Irrespective of raising income for placements, the agency has struggled to recruit and keep plenty of foster mothers and fathers and group houses have struggled to keep open up or staff members their beds with qualified personnel.

That has presently resulted in youngsters becoming shuffled nightly between “hot line” households that provide past-minute, short-time period stays, or in dire instances, sleeping in workplaces in which DCF staff perform right away shifts. When little ones in DCF care conclusion up in crisis departments for expert services like psychiatric evaluations, the condition has often saved them there even though awaiting an correct placement, such as DCF group homes, foster homes or residential courses contracted with the Division of Psychological Health and fitness.

Some prolonged stays in hospitals are labeled as “administratively necessary” for other motives, like clients waiting around for house providers to be set up. But for children who get expert services from DCF or are in DCF custody, a most important reason is they are even now waiting for placements and have no other possibilities.

That placement procedure has also turn into a lot more difficult as social staff have seen much more youngsters with intensive demands all through the pandemic, reported David Foley, the president of SEIU Neighborhood 509, which signifies lots of DCF employees all-around the condition. “Social staff are navigating a complex system.”

In the medical center, at least, kids are guaranteed a bed and foods, personnel say. But dwelling in unexpected emergency place conditions can also be deeply traumatizing to previously traumatized little ones.

They’re rarely allowed to go outside and at times confined to meals like fries and rooster fingers that can be eaten without utensils. Numerous rooms have no home windows, that means young children usually fill the days seeing Tv set or scrolling via cellphones, if they have them.

The disorders they are topic to also influence clinic workers who want to assist but are overextended, stated Katie Pirri, an emergency department nurse at Steward Morton Hospital in Taunton.

“This is just about every hospital,” claimed Pirri, who claimed she’d personally viewed a dozen these kinds of children in DCF custody due to the fact she commenced functioning in the emergency office 6 decades ago. “They’re missing school, the nutrition is dreadful, they have almost nothing to do. Essentially we’re newborn sitters — but we have other sufferers who are genuinely sick also.”

Healthcare facility beds are also at a quality as hospitals all around the state are being squeezed to capacity. Emergency departments have often described several hours-very long waits for individuals. In the past few months, much more than 90 percent of healthcare facility beds have been routinely filled, in accordance to a point out tracker.

In the meantime, psychological overall health expert services of all sorts, but specially for young children, simply cannot retain up with desire. Hold out lists for treatment all over the state have stretched to months. It is a crisis state lawmakers moved to tackle very last calendar year, allocating tens of millions in new funding to strengthen resources and insurance policies protection. Erasing the shortfall in treatment is positive to charge millions extra.


Couple places truly feel all those cuts a lot more acutely than Worcester County, where by James grew up.

His mother, Marie, struggled early on with her personal psychological well being troubles — temper swings, melancholy — and James’s early a long time ended up a carousel of distinctive relatives’ homes and some DCF involvement, she stated. But as a youthful kid, he was brief to crack a joke or a smile for the people he cherished most.

“If he cherished you and received attached to you, you couldn’t go nowhere,” she remembered.

As James obtained older, he started to retreat into himself: skipping faculty, shelling out late evenings out, mouthing off. At initially Marie questioned if it was just the variety of acting up you might be expecting from a teen. Then, she reported, she read about James acquiring into fights with other youngsters. The faculty he attended would report an at any time-expanding tally of absences. Some days, he would not listen to her entreaties at all.

She started worrying about her son finding mixed up with the incorrect group. He “thought he was untouchable,” she remembered. “I was nervous I was going to conclude up burying this child or that he’d conclusion up in jail.”

In December 2021, Marie determined she experienced no other option: she filed a petition to entail the state in James’s treatment. The arrangement, she thought, may possibly get him some remedy and set him straight.

But these types of petitions, termed “child necessitating assistance” scenarios, go via the juvenile courtroom program. Even with quite a few reforms created a decade ago, the method has gaps in linking young children with behavioral overall health means they want, in accordance to a report late past calendar year from the Office of the Little one Advocate.

But Marie mentioned she believed it was her only alternative.

“I just required him to have anger administration classes. I needed him to go to treatment, I wished him to go to faculty,” she claimed. “But we under no circumstances noticed the providers take place. We never ever bought to see the therapy.”

However James experienced been assigned social employees at residence, he ongoing to skip class and argue with his family members. Then in April, whilst at the courthouse for a listening to about his mother’s petition, James fought with a probation officer. A choose turned custody above to DCF, which placed James in a group household various miles north.

For a couple of months, Marie said, the new arrangement appeared to aid. When James arrived residence for occasional weekend visits, she’d see flashes of her son’s aged self. They’d go out to eat or order takeout. In some cases, Marie’s mother would prepare dinner. They’d view Tv set even though Oreo, James’s cat, would nuzzle his brow and remain glued to his side.

Then at the finish of August, DCF revoked his checking out privileges, citing worries that his home placing was not harmless. Marie mentioned the conclusion came immediately after she criticized James’s social worker and asked yet again about obtaining treatment for her son.

Reduce off from household visits and having difficulties with university, James spiraled. In early October, he argued with staff members at his group house and threw a rock through a car window, according to data reviewed by the World. His group property called the law enforcement, who escorted James to the medical center in Leominster.

Marie, James’s mom, stood within her property in Worcester County. “I felt helpless,” she claimed of her son’s healthcare facility stay. “He was just getting held there.”Jessica Rinaldi/World Personnel

When Marie got the connect with from the medical center, she was surprised and furious — right after all, she experienced requested the state for enable. She felt she deserved a say in his treatment.

When she was equipped to take a look at him, after he experienced been at the healthcare facility for a week, she was ushered by protection and a metallic detector and was startled to uncover James isolated in a little healthcare facility space hardly large sufficient for him to stretch his arms out. Thin blue scrubs rustled versus his lanky frame. He looked each and every inch a affected individual — besides that he was not sick.

“I was like, of system he demands assist. But a psych maintain? Occur on now,” she remembered.

She agonized around whether or not to take him residence she nervous she wasn’t lawfully permitted to go away with him considering that he was in DCF custody. And she puzzled: What happened to the therapy she’d sought for James?

She mentioned James was pleased to see her, chattering about underwhelming clinic food stuff and asking if she could carry him his cellphone or anything else to take in. Marie attempted to reassure herself — potentially this would only be for a number of times, she assumed.

She began driving practically every other day to stop by him for a several several hours soon after function, occasionally with his favored McDonald’s sandwiches or coloring guides to pass the time. Each day, she imagined she’d listen to an update about how a great deal for a longer period he would have to stay in the ER. But one more week went by with no word.

Then Taylor Henley, one particular of James’s lawyers, e-mailed DCF inquiring for an update on James’s standing. The agency was nonetheless searching for new placements, a social employee replied. New psych beds? No, the reply came back — James wasn’t in have to have of health care care any longer. Because his aged team house would not take him again, DCF was leaving him in the ER right until they could uncover somewhere else for him to go.

In e-mails, Marie demanded to fully grasp how the condition could go away her son driving — and retain her in the darkish. “If I did the things DCF has carried out, I would [have] experienced my youngsters taken away from me for NEGLECT,” she wrote in a group e-mail chain that provided his social worker.

“I fully comprehend the stress but this is out of my regulate,” the employee wrote again, describing the deficiency of open beds for James. “There is a foster care disaster as well as a mental overall health crisis in Massachusetts and we can not develop placements out of slender air.”

For one more three weeks, when James languished in the hospital, Marie and her son’s attorneys labored the telephones, searching for answers. Henley said she turned to the two the DCF ombudsman’s business and the Office of the Boy or girl Advocate. The ombudsman’s office, she claimed, offered to look at his file. The Place of work of the Little one Advocate, she recalled, informed her to simply call the ombudsman’s office environment.

Maria Mossaides, the director of the Place of work of the Little one Advocate, declined to comment precisely on James’s case, but mentioned when contacted that her office environment tries to connect folks to the correct condition businesses. The Office environment of the Youngster Advocate, she explained, is also targeted broadly on pinpointing gaps in the system for plan makers.

What in the end sprung James right after a thirty day period and a 50 percent wasn’t a new dwelling to go to — it was a court docket day, requiring James to present up in person to discuss his custody scenario and his delinquency situation.

At the hearing, Marie stated, she asked the courtroom how to get DCF out of James’s daily life. She desired to deliver him residence, but James couldn’t stay in Worcester County, she said, worrying that his being back again in the neighborhood and all-around the erroneous group could induce his anger difficulties yet again. What, she wondered, if he stayed for a whilst with her adult daughter out of point out?

The choose agreed. In a make a difference of minutes, she and James stepped out of the courtroom with each other, her son back again in her custody.

James was “ecstatic,” Marie remembered. “All he cared about was he obtained to slumber in a authentic bed that evening.”

The DCF worker at the hearing gave them a curt goodbye, Marie mentioned. “He just superior-tailed it out of there,” Marie explained.

Two nights later on, she said, she drove James to his sister’s residence, hoping for a fresh start.


Elizabeth Koh can be achieved at [email protected]. Abide by her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.

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