by Ann Balmelli O’Connor
To many, the Supreme Judicial Court’s holdings in Care and Protection of Walt, 478 Mass. 212 (2017)—that the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) must comply with the law, that courts must ensure that DCF complies with the law, and that where parents or children are harmed by DCF’s breach of its legal obligations, a court may enter orders to remediate the harm —must seem unremarkable. But to attorneys who represent parents and children in state-intervention child custody cases, the decision is a welcome step towards realizing the law’s expectation that removing a child from his parents will be DCF’s “last resort.” Walt at 219.
Since 1954, the commonwealth’s policy has been to remove a child from his parents “only when the family itself or the resources available to the family are unable to provide the necessary care and protection[.]” Id. at 219, citing G.L. c. 119, § 1. When a court awards custody of a child to DCF, the court must determine whether or not DCF made reasonable efforts to “prevent or eliminate the need” to remove the child from his parent(s). G.L. c. 119, § 29C. There are four exceptions to DCF’s reasonable efforts obligation; unless an exception applies, DCF must make reasonable efforts before removing a child. Id. But for many years, juvenile courts routinely have excused DCF’s failure to make reasonable efforts for reasons beyond the statutory exceptions. Walt was one of those cases.
In Walt, DCF made no effort to avoid removing a three-year-old child from his parents because the investigating social worker believed Walt was at immediate risk of harm in the home. A trial judge, citing that risk, excused DCF’s failure to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing Walt. An Appeals Court single justice deemed that ruling error and, because DCF’s breach of its duty to make reasonable efforts had harmed Walt and his father by hindering their reunification, the single justice entered orders for visits and services in order to facilitate Walt’s return to his father’s custody. The single justice reported the issues to a panel of the Appeals Court, and the SJC transferred the case on its own motion.
On appeal, DCF argued that the trial judge only needed to determine whether DCF made reasonable efforts at an initial (usually ex parte) hearing on DCF’s request for emergency custody, not at a later 72-hour hearing. And at the ex parte hearing in Walt, the judge had determined that DCF did make the required efforts. The SJC rejected DCF’s argument and held that G.L. c. 119, § 24 plainly requires that the determination be made at both hearings. Walt at 223-224. The Court noted that the wisdom of requiring that the matter be revisited at the later (adversarial) hearing was illustrated in Walt, where the social worker’s ex parte claims regarding reasonable efforts were shown at the 72-hour hearing to have been “simply not true.” Id. at 225.
DCF next urged that the Court create an “exigent circumstances” exception to § 29C, which would excuse DCF from its duty to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing a child where a parent subjected the child “to serious abuse or neglect or an immediate danger of serious abuse or neglect.” Id. at 226. The Court declined to read that exception into § 29C, since the Legislature did not include it. The Court noted that “a judge must determine what is reasonable in light of the particular circumstances in each case, that the health and safety of the child must be the paramount concern, and that”—regardless of whether or not DCF made reasonable efforts—“no child should remain in the custody of the parents if his or her immediate removal is necessary to protect the child from serious abuse or neglect.” Id. at 225, 228.
DCF also claimed that the single justice exceeded his authority in ordering DCF to provide multiple father-son visits each week, permit Walt’s father to participate in special education meetings, and explore housing options for the family. The SJC disagreed; because DCF had violated its legal obligation to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing Walt, the single justice properly exercised his equitable authority in ordering DCF “to take reasonable remedial steps to diminish the adverse consequences of its breach of duty.” Id. at 228. Because the single justice acted long after Walt had been removed from his parents, he correctly entered orders designed to facilitate reunification. The Court observed that a juvenile court judge has the same authority. Id. at 228, 231.
As to the order for visitation, or “parenting time,” the Court stated that DCF’s schedule of one-hour visits every other week “imperil[ed] the father-son bond that was essential” to reunification Id. at 230. Accordingly, the single justice properly ordered a schedule “that would enable that bond to remain intact.” Id. (citations omitted). Equity likewise warranted the order that Walt’s father be permitted to remain involved in his education. Finally, because the parents would likely have difficulty obtaining housing benefits because Walt was in DCF’s custody—and housing “was likely a prerequisite to family reunification”—the single justice properly ordered DCF to explore housing options for the family. Id. at 230.
DCF has been removing children from their homes at higher rates over the past several years, and the foster care system is overwhelmed. Too often, DCF has removed these children without offering, let alone providing, any services or other assistance to their families. With this decision, the SJC has helped to ensure that DCF will follow the law, so that separating families and placing children in an overburdened foster care system truly will be the agency’s last resort.
Ann Balmelli O’Connor is the Attorney-in-Charge of the Appellate Unit of CPCS’s Children and Family Law Division. Attorney O’Connor, a former Assistant General Counsel for DCF, represented the child’s father in Care and Protection of Walt.