DCF faces huge backlog on background checks
They are some of the state's most vulnerable children: thousands in state custody, many waiting to be placed in safe, nurturing homes. But 5 Investigates has discovered a massive backlog in criminal background checks at the state's Department of Children and Families is delaying the process.
"It's really vital to these kids that we have these homes opened to them," said Erin Bradley, executive director of the Children's League of Massachusetts.
"There are homes that are waiting to be opened and families that are really willing to receive foster children and they're just stuck in the process,” Bradley said.
The state added stricter policies after the deaths of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, whose body was found in a suitcase off a highway, and 2-year-old Avalena Conway Coxon, who died from heat stroke while in the care of a foster family.
Those policies required additional background checks, including national criminal background, sex offender and state checks known as CORI's, before a child is placed in a home and whenever there's an accusation of abuse or neglect.
They include requiring all parents, caregivers and household members older than 15 to pass criminal, sex offender and national background checks before a child is placed in a home. That process involves fingerprinting. And background checks are also run whenever there's an accusation of abuse or neglect.
That requirement caused a spike in the number of requests for background checks resulting in a massive backlog. 5 Investigates has been battling DCF for the past five months to find out exactly how many cases are stuck waiting to be processed.
Bradley applauded the stricter regulations but was concerned that they were leading to the backlog, which in turn was keeping kids in the system from being placed in foster homes.
"I applaud the state in doing the stricter regulations, making sure we're doing a check on all of the kids in the home, but the issue is to make sure the kids that are waiting on foster home placement aren't languishing in other settings that they don't need to be in,” she said.
Initially DCF said the information didn't exist. Four months later they still didn't have the number. After several more emails and after we told the state we knew exactly where they could find the number of backlogged cases in their system they finally turned over the number they didn't want you to see: nearly 16,000 background checks waiting to be processed.
The backlog is thanks at least in part to a huge influx of requests for background checks caused by stricter state regulations. In 2016 there were a total of 236,090 background check requests, a 32 percent increase from the 178,742 requested the year before. All this comes at a time when the opioid epidemic has stressed the system and there aren't enough foster homes for placement.
After 5 Investigates began asking questions, the state started to add more staff to handle the backlog and tell 5 Investigates that foster and adoptive families are a priority.
But the backlog is actually higher than the 16,000 figure suggests because a single request can be for an entire household of people needing checks.
DCF commissioner Linda Spears said the agency is trying to move through the backlog.
"It's impacting the adoptive process and foster care families,” Curran asked her. “How concerned are you and what's being done about it?”
“We are working very, really hard to move the CORI pending list through the process. Last year when we increased the number of CORI's…it increased the volume,” Spears said.
"What do you say to these families and these children who are being impacted?” Curran asked her.
“Well I think for each and every family we want them to get through the process as quickly as we can, we know they're working hard out there,” Spears replied.