Massachusetts

Foster Child Taken From Only Family She's Known as Thousands Linger in System

"My last memory is just putting her into a car, screaming, with a social worker. She didn't want to go," Robyn Hegerich said of the child she'd fostered nearly three years. "I never had the opportunity to say goodbye, to tell her I loved her."

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There are more than 3,000 children in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families who have been in the system for two years or longer -- difficult cases that must balance parental rights with what's in the best interest of children.

The NBC10 Boston Investigators looked into the troubling case of a foster child we'll call Rose. She was on track for adoption and living with the Hegerich family, who fostered her for almost three years. The DCF changed her permanency goal and placed her back with her biological mother in January.

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Foster mom Robyn Hegerich recalled the last time she saw the little girl she considered her daughter.

"My last memory is just putting her into a car, screaming, with a social worker. She didn't want to go," Hegerich said. "I never had the opportunity to say goodbye, to tell her I loved her."

There was no chance for a last hug or to say goodbye after almost three years of nurturing Rose. The only stable home and family she had ever known was taken away when the DCF placed her back with her mother.

"I was horrified, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach," Hegerich said.

"I don't know how that's best for the child or how that's best for her to have all ties cut off after three years," added her husband, Greg Hegerich.

Rose was just five days old and born exposed to drugs, according to DCF records, when the Hegerichs opened their home and hearts to foster her in March of 2020. Those records show her biological parents have battled substance use disorder for years and lost custody of another daughter in 2019.

The Hegerichs say they worked to support Rose's mother and to make sure the little girl bonded with her biological sister and grandparents. But what was supposed to be only a short stay in their foster home stretched to years.

"We had no intention of really adopting any children, but when you're with this little girl three years and she was looking up to us like we're her world, of course we're going to step in and do that," said Greg Hegerich.

Rose was reunified with her mother for a short time in 2020, but was quickly placed back with Hegerichs. According to a police report and DCF records, her mom overdosed on the highway with Rose in the car while the baby's father was driving.

The case was being managed out of the DCF's Plymouth office until it moved to the department's office in Braintree last spring. That's when the Hegerichs say DCF began considering reunification.

A Foster Care Review report from last summer shows there were still concerns about the mother's sobriety, questionable drug tests and stable housing, but said there was no indication she was actively using. Court records show the father faced multiple drug charges during the baby's life, and was found guilty of possessing drugs and resisting arrest. He also admitted to sufficient facts in a drugged driving case last month.

DCF emails show Rose was supposed to have a few day visits and overnights with her mom in January before being permanently placed with her. She went for one overnight visit, her foster family raised concerns about her safety that night, and Rose was never returned home to say goodbye to the family she lived with since birth.

"We were her mom and dad for three years," said Robyn Hegerich. "That's all she knew."

This comes at a time when thousands of kids are lingering in the system for far too long. The most recent state data shows 38% of the children in DCF custody have been in care for two years or more, longer than the national average of 22 months.

"This child was safe, she was in a permanent placement, she was obviously thriving," Flatley told the NBC10 Boston Investigators. "This is a dangerous decision, and we've seen over and over again in the commonwealth that decisions like this were made and children didn't just suffer, they died."

The Hegerichs understand the goal of the foster care system is always reunification if possible, but they question the time it takes to achieve that permanent placement in many cases.

"We have federal guidelines in place about how long a child should remain in care and when we should have permanency," said Robyn Hegerich.

"You don't want to simply sever parental rights on the basis of some gratuitous allegation or a failure to provide services to a family that desperately wants to get it right, but at the same time, no child deserves a childhood in the child welfare system," Flatley said.

The Hegerichs have now closed their foster home to the DCF. Rose's room, once a place of joy and comfort, is a reminder of the heartache, and her laughter that filled the home has been silenced.

Robyn Hegerich said she doesn't think she'll ever get over what happened.

"I don't think you can, losing a child," she said.

A DCF spokesperson said the department is "committed to safe reunification for children in its custody when appropriate" and told NBC10 Boston that to terminate parental rights, the court has to have evidence that proves the biological parent is unfit. The DCF has launched several initiatives to minimize the length of time in foster care.

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