Putting Out Wildfires: Consequences of a Staffing Drought in DCF Programs

by Amanda Koffink

 This summer I had the opportunity to work as a Residential Counselor in two different DCF-funded programs.  My first position was at a Short-Term Assessment and Rapid Reintegration (STARR) program. STARR Programs typically care for children upon their initial placement into custody of DCF, especially when children arrive under emergency circumstances. My second position was at the Home for Little Wanderers Waltham House. Waltham House is a long-term group home that specifically serves LGBTQ+ adolescents in DCF custody, typically between the ages of 14 and 18 years old. Many of the Waltham House residents are there because they had experienced homophobia and transphobia in foster homes and other group home settings when entering DCF custody. Additionally, many of the residents in this particular program entered DCF custody due to their original guardians disowning them after they came out as LGBTQ+.

As the end of my first day at STARR was approaching, a girl came up to me and said:

“Are you gonna leave us? Did we already scare you away?”

“No?” I replied with confusion

“Promise?” She asked.

“Yeah, why do you say that?” I asked.

“Well, every new staff member leaves us.”

As evidenced by the girl’s comments, unconditional love will always seem to be an oxymoron for children in custody of DCF programs, as their favorite staff go home at night, quit without a two-weeks’ notice, and never return.

A Journey Through DCF: From Emergency Removal to Permanency Planning

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) serves children aged 0 to 18, removing them from abusive and neglectful homes. When a caller reports to the DCF hotline that they suspect neglect or abuse of a child, the situation is investigated to determine if the child is in immediate danger. If this is determined to be the case, an investigation begins within two hours and the first home visit is conducted within 24 hours of the reported abuse (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 119, § Section 51b, 2021). In these emergency situations, from what I have witnessed, the child is often removed immediately and sent to a STARR program.

 Children generally remain in STARR for approximately 45 days until DCF determines a more permanent placement for them. The STARR Program is in a sense like Limbo, as the child awaits their fate. Like in Limbo, the child’s behavior while in the STARR program can play a role in determining where the child ends up afterwards.

DCF has been struggling to recruit and retain enough foster parents to keep up with the increasing rate of children being placed in the system. For this reason, following their initial placement in STARR programs, children are often transferred into long-term group home settings.

Putting Out Wildfires: Consequences of a Staffing Drought in DCF Programs

At the STAAR program, a child once proudly said to me “Wow, the police haven’t come in a long time.”  It had been three weeks since they last came. They almost had to be called the previous day too, when she got into a physical altercation with another child because she did not want to watch a certain movie. Thankfully, we had enough staff to restrain her without police presence.  However, if we had been short staffed, she could have gone into custody of DYS (“juvie”) because of a movie. A lack of staffing and failure to de-escalate children before criminal acts occur appears to be one of the main contributors to the DCF-to-juvie pipeline. The Walpole police department reports that a DCF program in their town makes around 270 calls to the police in a given year (Basu, 2020; Donnelly & Moser, 2018). As documented by the non-profit organization Citizens for Juvenile Justice (2018) “72% of the overall committed population had prior DCF involvement—85% of girls and 70% of boys” (p. 10). DCF programs face a staffing drought and thus, a program so deprived of stability that even a conflict as minute as a flame on a birthday candle might just spark the next wildfire.

My bosses at Waltham House, on the other hand, appeared more cautious about accepting anyone into the program who had a history of being violent towards others. In comparison to programs like STARR, who averaged hundreds of calls per year to the police, Waltham House had not used restraints on children in five years, and rarely had calls to the police. However, the staffing shortage was still extremely present, and youth were impacted in a variety of other ways.

Generally, when staff constantly come and go, youth are at risk of leaving the system without one consistent positive adult mentor in their lives and with the firmly held belief that they are innately unlovable.  The children in these programs, at times, appeared to be blaming themselves for the staffing issue, when it was ultimately a systemic issue, entirely out of their control.

Staff are given an extremely strict set of guidelines to follow and face the threat of severe legal ramifications for any shortcoming. Staff often receive minimum wage pay, are mandated for 16-hour shifts, at times lack sufficient training, and must consistently navigate communication mishaps with coworkers.

With these conditions, other job opportunities can seem more and more appealing. This is likely why DCF programs are constantly scrambling for staff. If they have staff who are paid enough to be there, and who have the commitment to stay, they can provide the youth with at least a glimpse of unconditional love, which a lot of these staff members truly have for the kids.


Basu, M. (2020, December 15). Children in DCF custody at 2 Walpole homes will be removed immediately after COVID-19 clusters. Boston 25 News. https://www.boston25news.com/news/health/children-dcf-custody-2-walpole-homes-will-be-removed-immediately-after-covid-19-clusters/6BYLX4LIEFA53EHE4ELAG7U6WI/

Citizens for Juvenile Justice. (2018, July). Shutting Down the Trauma to Prison Pipeline. cfjj.org. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58ea378e414fb5fae5ba06c7/t/5b4761732b6a28f6ea5e94c1/1531404665230/FINAL+TraumaToPrisonReport.pdf

Donnelly, A. & Moser, D. (2018, March 7). Walpole School Shuts Down After Years of Problems. NBC 10 Boston. https://www.nbcboston.com/news/local/walpole-school-shuts-down-after-years-of-problems/99081/

Mass. Gen. Laws ch 119 § Section 51b (2021). https://malegislature.gov/laws/generallaws/parti/titlexvii/chapter119/section51b

Amanda Koffink is a Tufts senior majoring in Child Study & Human Development.

Leave a Reply