The bad news just keeps coming, with another disturbing report about how the state of Massachusetts has been caring for kids in need.
Just a week ago the governor and state Auditor Suzanne Bump got into a public feud over Bump's report that said children under the care of the state Department of Children and Families had been abused and prosecutors weren't alerted to crimes committed against them.
Now, a report by the Office of the Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found scores of cases where employees in group foster homes had not received background checks, an issue that put children "potentially at risk," according to the report.
The report also cited instances of moldy and ripped mattresses, rotting food and widespread noncompliance among 30 group homes inspected by government auditors.
The apparently haphazard use of criminal background checks before people are hired to work in group homes is the most disturbing aspect of the report. It said about 10 percent – 155 of the 1,445 group home employees the federal auditors reviewed – never underwent background checks before they were hired.
George Nedder, who directed the federal audit, said, "You're talking about someone in a house behind closed doors" with children. He noted that he had to fill out a form for a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) check before he could volunteer to help at his daughter's soccer games.
Yet his auditors found more than 150 instances where prospective foster home workers were never fingerprinted, never scrutinized for criminal records and never compared to a sex offender registry, before they were hired by state contractors to work with children.
DCF oversees more than 9,000 children in foster care. DCF and officials at the state Department of Early Education and Care promised to act on specific allegations in the federal report.
In statements released this week, state officials said they are starting annual unannounced visits to group homes, as recommended in the Inspector General's report.
There's no denying that many of the children in foster care – whether placed in a family setting or in group foster homes – often face serious behavioral and developmental challenges, because of often unstable family backgrounds. DCF and the Department of Early Education are charged with trying to create stable and healthy living environments for many children who haven't had them before.
But the findings that state agencies were so sloppy about a most basic procedure – complete background checks on strangers before they are put in contact with often-vulnerable children – is especially disturbing in this day and age.
The need to do a better job isn't being ignored, judging from the statement by DCF spokeswoman Andrea Grossman: "Children in our custody deserve a safe and healthy environment, and the specific issues identified during the course of the audit were immediately addressed."
That presumably means the agency is now doing criminal background checks on everyone it has hired, and the unsanitary conditions cited in some of the group homes reviewed in the audit have been cleaned up. Those seem like minimum requirements in the 21st century.
The vow to conduct one annual, unannounced visit to each group home seems like a very low bar to reach. Even at that, these improved practices should improve overall conditions for children in Massachusetts group foster homes.