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House passes bill targeting foster homes with former convicts

The Massachusetts House on Wednesday approved a bill to temporarily stop the state’s troubled child welfare agency from placing children in foster homes where a member of the household has been convicted of a serious crime.

Under the bill, the Department of Children and Families would be barred from placing children into any such home until the Child Welfare League of America, which is conducting a review of the agency, completes its report, which is expected as soon as next month.

The amendment also orders DCF to detail by March 31 what kind of background checks it performs on potential foster parents.

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The measure was adopted after DCF officials said there were 545 foster homes in 2013 where the guardian had a prior criminal conviction.

Patrick administration officials have said that 95 percent of the crimes were committed more than a decade ago — often when the foster parents were juveniles themselves — and many of the offenses were minor.

In addition, administration officials have said more than 90 percent of the former convicts approved for the foster care program were taking in relatives, consistent with the state’s goal of trying to keep families together when possible.

Governor Deval Patrick said earlier this week that it is important to give DCF officials some room to decide which foster parents are appropriate, particularly if their convictions are more than a decade old or involve extenuating circumstances.

“Every case is different,” Patrick said Monday. “There are judgments made.”

But Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the House Republican leader who sponsored the bill, said he was concerned that DCF does not have a clear policy detailing when it allows children to be placed in foster homes with a former convict.

“It just seems like on an issue like that, there should be a very easy way to see the written policy we follow,” Jones said.

The bill was adopted on a voice vote and without debate. It would have to pass the Senate and be signed by the governor quickly for it to have any effect, however, because the Child Welfare League of America is expected to complete its report soon.

Jones said he is hopeful the legislation will become law because it is attached to a budget bill that includes $2.8 million that Patrick has requested for DCF, as well as money for other urgent needs, such as snow and ice removal.

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