October 1st, 2017

Report seeks to increase information sharing

i-FamilyNet, the case management system that Massachusetts Department of Children and Families partner providers use, has information in narrative form. But the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) uses a system that relies more on data elements and fields for users to search and collect data.

Different systems in the same state pose a challenge for sharing information about safety and risk factors at residential schools. That’s according to an 82-page report released last spring by the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate.

The report by the Interagency Working Group on Residential Schools calls for better coordination of state agency oversight activities and improved data collection.
The report is the result of a review requested by Gov. Charlie Baker in the spring of 2016 after allegations of maltreatment of children with disabilities at the private Eagleton School in Great Barrington and the public Peck School in Holyoke.

The working group focused on ways to improve the state’s capacity to prevent harm by identifying programs experiencing operational problems and making recommendations for improvement.

Among the report’s recommendations:

* Better coordination of activities and data related to initial licensing and approval processes by the Department of Early Education and Care and ESE and monitoring activities by DCF.

* The development of a process for sharing data on safety factors and providing staff training and technical assistance.

* Streamlining incident notification and response protocols among various agencies and providers.

* Review and clarification of the circumstances warranting the filing of a report of abuse and neglect with DCF.

Conversations between licensing, purchasing and investigatory agencies were already underway as the school year began, said Child Advocate Maria Mossaides.

“I think people at the operational level are now having a lot more communication,” Mossaides said.

The focus has been on shared understanding, she added.

“Are we all using the same term to mean the same thing?” Mossaides said. “So whatever we’re labeling it, can we actually agree as to what this means? And can we figure out is there an easier way, I mean automated way, of sharing this information, because the information is being shared now but it’s mostly manual.”

Mossaides said the state has engaged a consultant to develop shared definitions of about 30 safety factor indicators collected in annual program quality assurance reviews by the Department of Mental Health and DCF. The report found that both departments don’t always collect the same information.

In addition, the state had already issued a Request for Response for a consultant to assist in implementing report recommendations to redesign the licensing processes for ESE and the Department of Early Education and Care.

James V. Major, CAE IOM, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools said the report is drawing attention to the problem of significant staff turnover as an impediment to a well trained staff.

The report cited a Virginia study that found a turnover of 75 percent among residential counselors and 45 percent among psychiatric nurses in residential treatment programs for children and adolescents.

“We’ve been talking about this for years,” Major said, noting that the state sets tuition rates of member schools below cost, forcing them to conduct fundraising efforts to close their operating deficits.

“The result of that is that our members are not able to pay salaries and benefits that are comparable to those of public school districts and yet our staff has to meet the same licensing requirements.”

Major said member schools’ average annual teachers’ salary is a little over $50,000 a year, compared to about $75,000 for public school teachers. “And on average, our schools are open a month longer than public schools are, and the residential schools are open even more days of the year than that.”

The report also noted the 2.4 percent increase nationally in the rate of children with disabilities, from 2011 to 2014.

By Janine Weisman

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