Tag Archive for: Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

Tragedies fuel child welfare bill, pitched as attempt to improve system

Child welfare advocates, including Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Staff Attorney Susan Elsen and Retired Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman, interim director of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, scrutinized portions of an omnibus reform bill that in part seeks to rework the advising structure for the state’s Office of the Child Advocate while granting the office more power to intervene in some court cases — proposed legislative language one former judge said creates legal questions. The bill is pinned to high profile cases of child neglect in Massachusetts.

Some child welfare advocacy groups pushed back on the idea, saying the Office of the Child Advocate needs to have access to a wide range of expertise. Elsen said the office cannot oversee the welfare and safety of children in the state all by itself.

“Even if we agree that the composition should be adjusted so it doesn’t have as many executive branch members so as to ensure that the OCA has independence from the executive branch, the OCA does need an advisory committee to consult with, report to, and be accountable to,” Elsen told lawmakers.

Blitzman said Massachusetts has a “history of reacting to tragic cases with sometimes ineffective policy changes.” Blitzman said he and the legislative committee share the same concerns about improving the child welfare system. But he raised questions in his testimony about “how the bill might or might not achieve its goals.” 

Read more in the June 7 articles at MassLive, CommonWealth, and The Eagle Tribune.

Report says DCF needs to incorporate family input into policies

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute released a report entitled Family Voices: Insights about prevention services from families and youth directly affected by the Massachusetts Child Welfare system, which examines the state’s child welfare system and provides recommendations for improving the system and services provided to families. The report was covered in a CommonWealth Magazine article as well as in a legislative briefing hosted by MLRI and State Representative Adrian Madaro on May 9.

The report looks at the state’s child welfare system through the eyes of the families caught up in it. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 14 parents and youth and met three times with representatives of Family Matters First, a group of over 100 parents with Department of Children and Families (DCF) involvement. For families, DCF is known not as an agency that provides helpful resources but as one that takes children away.

“Families want service and help without DCF involvement,” said report author Susan Elsen, the child welfare advocate at MLRI.

Elsen said the gap between the mission of DCF – to keep children safely at home with their families whenever possible – and how it is perceived by the families it serves shows the need to bring families into the agency’s policy and planning efforts. “We hope to put the voices of people with lived experience out in the public arena with respect to planning services to keep children safely with their families, to really show how useful and profound their insights are into what’s going to make services effective for keeping children safely with their families,” Elsen said. 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine. Download the full report here.

Report: Post-moratorium, evictions disproportionately filed in communities of color

A new report from the coalition Homes For All Massachusetts, co-authored by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, finds that after the state’s eviction moratorium ended in October 2020, communities of color were hit harder by new eviction filings than white residents.

Between Oct. 18, 2020 and Oct. 30, 2021, 43 percent of all Massachusetts eviction filings occurred in neighborhoods where most residents identify as people of color, even though those neighborhoods comprise just 32 percent of the state’s rental-housing stock, according to an analysis by Eric Robsky Huntley, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Science and Planning.

Andrea Park, an attorney at MLRI, suggested the report could shape the rental-assistance portion of a supplemental budget currently being crafted by the Massachusetts Legislature.

In addition, Park noted, “there are pieces of legislation currently pending … things like giving local control for rent stabilization, for transfer fees, for giving tenants the opportunity to purchase their home.”

Read more at WGBH and The Boston Globe. Download the full report here.

Rising inflation puts squeeze on low-income families

Deborah Harris, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, was quoted in a March 6 Eagle Tribune article that reported on the financial pressures low-income families face due to inflation even while state and federal cash assistance benefits have increased.

Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker and state legislative leaders agreed to increase the monthly benefits for the state’s primary cash assistance program, known as Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, by about 9.1% — which boosted the maximum payment for a household of three to $612 per month. It was the first increase in more than a decade.

But advocates point out that the inflation rate — which climbed to about 7.5% in January — whittles down the net value of the increase to only about 1.6%.

“It’s simply not enough to make up for the lost value,” said Harris. “We hear from families who have to skimp on clothes and other essential items because the value of the assistance they get has eroded.”

Read more in The Eagle Tribune.

“SNAP Gap” progress spurs calls for Benefits Common App

On Feb. 15, the Baker administration announced that MassHealth applicants would be able to use their submitted information to start a SNAP application beginning in July, as reported in a WWLP article (from State House News Service). The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the National Association of Social Workers – MA Chapter have for years been leading a coalition of over 150 organizations advocating for a benefits application process that would allow Massachusetts residents to apply for MassHealth and food assistance at the same time.

MLRI estimated last year that 600,000 MassHealth recipients likely qualify for SNAP benefits but are not receiving the federally funded, state-administered food aid.

While MLRI Senior Policy Advocate Patricia Baker praised the administration’s latest step, she said more work should be done to remove “bureaucratic obstacles” that have been in place “for too long.” “It’s time to finish the job, break down the remaining barriers with a simple, accessible common application for all means-tested benefits available to our lowest income households,” Patricia Baker said.

MLRI and NASW backed legislation filed by Rep. Jay Livingstone of Boston and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett (H 1290 / S 761) that instructs the administration to begin developing a common application for a range of benefits. The Health Care Financing Committee favorably reported the bill in November, and it remains pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. 

Read more in WWLP articles from Feb. 18 and Feb. 15.

Supreme Judicial Court to consider virtual hearings in child custody cases

Jamie Sabino, an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, was quoted in a Jan. 30 CommonWealth Magazine article about virtual hearings in child custody cases.

With the COVID-19 pandemic upending judicial proceedings, courts have ruled that under certain circumstances, a criminal trial can be held via Zoom. Now the same question is arising in Juvenile Court: Can a termination of parental rights hearing be held virtually? 

Parents involved in care and protection cases tend to be poor, are disproportionately Black and brown and under-resourced in many ways,” said Jamie Sabino, an attorney at MLRI, a poverty law agency. “For many of them, the virtual world is not part of the world they operate in.” 

Sabino said when she worked on care and protection cases, parents often had trouble grasping the situation even when they were sitting in court. Some parents had developmental delays and almost all had experienced trauma. Sabino said the MLRI supports flexibility. Some parents might want a virtual trial to avoid the challenges of transportation or childcare. But if parents are uncomfortable with technology, she said, they must have a right to appear in person. “If being virtual in any way puts a strain on a parent trying to make their case to the court, that’s deeply unfair,” Sabino said. “They should have every opportunity to make the case in the manner they wish to do it.” 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.

Massachusetts tenants and landlords struggle with eviction process after moratoriums end

Andrea Park, Housing and Homelessness Staff Attorney at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, was quoted in an Oct. 31 SouthCoast Today article.

A state law from January stipulates that landlords are required to notify their tenants of programs that can help them meet rent or avoid eviction. When a landlord begins the eviction process, they must file for eviction, after proving they have provided legal notice to quit.

But that notice — which notifies the end of tenancy — is written in legal jargon that is difficult to understand. Tenants will not fully understand the process and move out without an understanding of their rights and government programs that can help avoid eviction, according to Andrea Park, an attorney at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

When a tenant gets taken to court, even if the case is resolved, the tenant will have an eviction record, which could bar them from securing a housing lease in the future, according to Park.

Read more in SouthCoast Today.

Advocates wary of tighter immigration rules

State leaders and immigration advocates are criticizing new federal rules that will require immigrants to show they won’t be a burden on taxpayers, saying the regulations will hurt families seeking health care, housing and other public programs.
The rules, which will be released on Wednesday and go into effect Oct. 15, change how the federal government determines if an immigrant is likely to need public assistance such as food stamps, housing and Medicaid, ostensibly making it more difficult for low-income immigrants to secure permanent residency status or temporary visas…Georgia Katsoulomitis, executive director of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said the rule change “will punish low-income, low-wage working immigrants seeking permanent residence in the U.S for accessing assistance for basic human needs.” “This subverts the nation’s long-standing immigration laws and family unification policy, because new immigrants will not be able to meet this radical new income test,” she said.
Read more in the Gloucester Daily Times