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There's a family separation crisis in Massachusetts, and hearings are being delayed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Michael Rodney has experienced something that no parent ever wants to go through - having his children taken away from him by the state, twice. And even though Massachusetts, where Rodney lives, promises hearings within 72 hours of a child being removed, Rodney had to wait weeks to get his day in court. And he's not alone.

Those are the findings of Mother Jones reporter Julia Lurie, who saw a pattern of court delays in child welfare cases in Massachusetts; delays which Lurie found disproportionately affect Black and brown people. I asked Lurie to start by telling me more about Michael Rodney.

JULIA LURIE: Michael is a Black father of six kids in western Massachusetts. And the Department of Children and Families, which is the Child Protective Services Agency in Massachusetts, got involved with his family in 2019. And Michael had assumed that this would be resolved pretty quickly, that a judge would hear the case and return the kids to Michael's care. But the family had stumbled into what turns out to be a very common problem in Massachusetts. There's this huge delay in hearings.

CHANG: Well, when a child is removed from their parents by the state, generally, what kinds of rights are parents like Rodney entitled to in the state of Massachusetts?

LURIE: When Child Protective Services removes kids against the will of their parents, state laws typically require a hearing before a judge within a matter of days basically to make sure that CPS made the right decision. So those hearings are a really critical check on the power of CPS workers. And those decisions, of course, can be tainted by racial and socioeconomic bias. Black and brown families are far more likely to be investigated by Child Protective Services than white children.

So in Massachusetts, those court dates are called 72-hour hearings because they're supposed to happen within 72 hours of an emergency removal. And at those court dates, all the parties - children and parents - are supposed to have appointed lawyers. And if they can't afford one, which the vast majority of families cannot, then the state is supposed to appoint one.

CHANG: So what happened in the two times that Rodney's kids were removed?

LURIE: So in the first case, two weeks went by before the hearing when a judge found that Michael was a safe parent and that the kids should be returned to his care. And then in the second case in January of 2020, it took three months for that...

CHANG: Wow.

LURIE: ...Quote-unquote, "72-hour hearing" to happen. And this was incredibly painful for him to not be able to care for his kids, to be worried about how they were doing, to not be able to make his case before a judge.

CHANG: Yeah.

LURIE: He kept going to court, and he would wait there for hours. And here's what that looked like for him.

MICHAEL RODNEY: We would sit inside of the juvenile hall, wait four or five hours to be heard and then - to be told that we have to come back tomorrow because the case before us took too long. So that feeling that I felt is a feeling that I really never want to feel again, kind of felt like empty and lonely.

LURIE: He said again and again that he just felt like he didn't have much recourse.

CHANG: And so when he finally did get the hearing the second time, the judge granted custody back to Rodney.

LURIE: Exactly, and they have been together as a family ever since.

CHANG: OK. I just want to step back for a moment because you found in your reporting that these delays to get a court hearing after a child is removed from their home - these court delays, they're widespread.

LURIE: Exactly. So what I found in terms of numbers is that of the 2,400 72-hour hearings that happened in Massachusetts last year, just a third of them had those hearings within three business days, and a fifth didn't occur for more than a month. And I found that the problem was particularly dramatic in Hampden County, which is the state's poorest county and one of its most diverse. And that is where Michael lives. In Hampden, two-thirds of the hearings were delayed by more than a month. So in essence, you have this court system that's meant to form a backstop of the child welfare system, making sure that CPS has acted appropriately, but the data suggests that that backstop is failing.

CHANG: Right. And also, to be clear, these court delays in child welfare cases, they are not just a Massachusetts problem, right? You found them across the country.

LURIE: There's no national data on just how often these delays happen, but anecdotally, they are very common. I actually heard from a number of lawyers, even after publishing this story, who said, we're seeing a variation of the same thing.

CHANG: We should explain that you found Child Protective Services - they are not solely to blame for these chronic court delays. I mean, this problem of delays, it's a lot more systemic, right? Can you just lay out the factors that contribute to these delays?

LURIE: So the problem broadly is that the court system cannot keep up with the number of CPS cases that are opened. So you have a number of problems. One is the high rate of CPS involvement, again, particularly in the homes of Black or brown families. In Massachusetts, for example, Black kids like Rodney's kids are 2 1/2 times more likely to be involved in CPS than white kids.

But then you also separately have a problem of court capacity. There is a chronic shortage of family lawyers who are able and willing to take on these cases. You know, these are long, complicated cases, and they're not particularly well-paid. They're not particularly appealing for a lot of lawyers. And in the name of privacy, the courts are closed to the public. So you have a court system that is really impervious to public scrutiny.

CHANG: Well, in speaking to families and to advocates, like, what kind of changes do they think could help improve these court delays?

LURIE: So child welfare experts that I've spoken to have pointed to a few changes. One is being much more judicious about removals to begin with and only removing kids from families that absolutely need to be removed. The second piece is investing more in family law. One striking thing about what I found going on in Massachusetts is just how much money talks. This past summer, the problem of not having enough lawyers really came to a head in Hampden County in Massachusetts. So the state decided to offer a one-time $1,500 bonus to lawyers who would take these cases on. And within a matter of days, the backlog of cases had gone from 200 to zero. Everyone had lawyers.

CHANG: Money talks, just as you said.

LURIE: Exactly.

CHANG: Well, I know that all of Michael Rodney's kids are back home now. How are they doing? Do you know?

LURIE: The family has been living together since April of 2020, and things have really stabilized. You know, the trauma of being separated, particularly for that second stretch, those three months, has definitely stayed with the kids. The kids still talk about what it was like to be in foster care, and they get anxious when Michael's not with them.

RODNEY: Even up until now, you know, they have like a - when they go with their grandparents or they go somewhere else other than where their parents are, they always want to come home. They never want to leave us. They always think that we're going to leave them there.

LURIE: All of that said, Michael would say that kids are doing really well, all things considered. His voice actually really lights up when he talks about, you know, the sports that they're into and the classes that they're taking.

RODNEY: DJ, Skyler and Mylan, they do kickboxing as well as all their other sports. Mylan is into soccer. He loves to follow me around. He wants to be just like me, my hair like me, every clothes like me and stuff. And then we have our pretty girl, Skyler. She loves to do her flips, dance.

You know, everything's going well. We're both working. We own a house. We're doing very well, you know?

CHANG: I'm really glad to hear that.

LURIE: Yeah, I am, too, you know, especially after everything they've been through. It was really nice to hear about just these normal family moments.

CHANG: That was Julia Lurie of Mother Jones. Thank you so much for your reporting, Julia.

LURIE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.