25 Investigates: Mass. foster parents move to form a union

BOSTON — Massachusetts foster parents could become the first in the nation to form a union. Legislation was filed last week that would allow Bay State foster homes to collectively bargain with the Department of Children and Families. Those pushing for the change tell anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh this is about getting a seat at the table.

Since 2017, 25 Investigates has been following Massachusetts’ foster parents’ push for better rights and protections.

The so-called ‘foster parents bill of rights’ was just edged out of legislation that passed last session. Foster parents, past and present, say they open their homes to these children they should have a voice when it comes to making decisions for them, or, at the very least be told what decisions are made.

“Foster parents are just walking on eggshells all the time,” said former Massachusetts foster parent Elaine Cleaves.

“We don’t have any means to protect ourselves,” said former Massachusetts foster parent Barbara Papile.

Both Cleaves and Papile say, as foster parents, each reached a breaking point with DCF. They say Massachusetts foster parents no voice, and, no rights when it comes to the lives of the children they welcome into their homes.

“We have these kids in our homes 24/7 and we don’t, we’re not always invited to that team meeting for these children,” said Papile.

“I’ve had kids who were at my house for months and found out at the end of the school year that they’re on meds,” Cleaves said. “Nobody ever told me, it wasn’t on their medical record.”

The pair has been among those advocating for the “foster parents bill of rights.”

Now, comes a different push to protect foster parents.

“If there was a totem pole of regard and respect, when in the child welfare agency, they are at the very bottom of that totem pole,” said Massachusetts Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.

The Democrat from the Berkshires has filed a bill to allow foster parents to form a union.

Farley-Bouvier says a union will ensure foster parents are seen as part of the professional team, ensuring they receive vitally important information about at-risk kids in their care.

“Just sometimes it’s really basic like ‘is the child that has been placed in my home last night, do they have any allergies.’ That happens more often than you would imagine,” said Farley-Bouvier.

“This is definitely not a traditional unionization effort,” said Peter MacKinnon is the president of the SEIU Local 509.

He’s also a former DCF social worker.

“And they’re not workers in the sense that they’re not employees of DCF. And, this would not change that,” MacKinnon said. “They would still be people who want to take in kids to help care for them. But they do a lot of work, obviously. And the work that they do is critically important to care for some of the most vulnerable children in the state.”

An Act to Assure Quality Foster Care” says in part “foster parents shall be considered public employees,” but in a limited way. For example, they would not be permitted to strike.

We asked the Department of Children and Families about the legislation. A spokesperson told us “DCF doesn’t comment on pending legislation.” DCF has collaborated with the legislature on and supports a foster parent bill of rights.

“Whether it’s medical information about trauma history or past abuse that maybe the child went through medication that they’re on,” MacKinnon. “That’s critical information that you need to be able to give kids what they need.”

But, MacKinnon says the union would also help negotiate things like reimbursement rates, and training.

Supporters say the union won’t fix everything. But, it could help improve an information flow that can have life and death consequences for the state’s most vulnerable children.

Over the years, foster parents told Kavanaugh they feared facing retaliation from DCF for speaking up. Rep. Farley-Bouvier says she hears that concern often as well. And, it’s one of the main reasons she filed the bill to unionize.

She has also re-filed the “foster parents bill of rights.” 25 Investigates will track the progress of both.