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Initial Report Released On Mass. Child Welfare Agency

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A preliminary report on the workings of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Family is out. In January, Governor Deval Patrick enlisted the help of the Child Welfare League of America after it was discovered that DCF mishandled the case of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who had been missing since September and is now feared dead.

The first progress report recommends much of what Governor Patrick suggested it would when he announced he was giving the Child Welfare League authority to review DCF’s structure, staff and work.

"I think we have a great opportunity, presented ironically, by this terrible tragedy to rethink and reinvigorate the department and I want to assure the public that is just what we intend to do," said Patrick.

Recommendations include decreasing average workloads of 18 cases per social worker to 15, a standard previously agreed upon by the social workers union and the DCF. The report shows DCF has hired 90 social workers since the start of the year while Governor Patrick’s 2015 fiscal budget includes funding for 177 more.  State Representative Tricia-Farley Bouvier, a fellow Democrat from Pittsfield, is one of the lawmakers assigned to investigating DCF.

“I believe that there will be strong support in the House for the funding of these positions,” said Farley-Bouvier.

The report also points out the need for social workers to have access to mobile technology for emergencies and other reasons. Patrick’s budget includes funding for mobile devices, and the first 60 tablets will be distributed to caseworkers across the state in the coming weeks. Further recommendations include requiring a medical screening of a child within 72 hours of custody. The current standard is seven days. Other than pointing out DCF added 15 additional workers at the office that was handling 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, there is no further mention of that case or the North Central office in Leominster. Alec Loftus is spokesman for the state’s Health and Human Services, which encompasses DCF.

“The CWLA final report will be addressing the Oliver case,” said Loftus.

The final report is expected in mid-May. Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker and two dozen state lawmakers of both parties have called for DCF Commissioner Olga Roche to resign in the wake of the Oliver case. Roche has offered to resign, but Governor Patrick refuses to accept it.

“The CWLA report mentions the need for steady leadership at the department during this time,” Loftus said. “Commissioner Roche is a former social worker with close to 30 years of experience. We thank the Child Welfare League for their recommendations in this area.”

Patrick did note in January Roche had fired three people – the caseworker who failed to make visits to the Oliver home and two supervisors. Citing the information she has been provided, Farley-Bouvier agrees with those firings and that Roche should stay on.

“I don’t think we need to have a change in leadership for political reasons,” Farley-Bouvier said. “I think most of the calls right now for her resignation are politically motivated and they don’t actually seek to solve the problems.”

Farley-Bouvier would like to see more review and discussion on the frequency of social worker visits to families’ homes.

“I find it very troubling myself that the standard is that we visit these families once a month,” the Democrat said. “How did we get to that point that that is considered a good practice? If we have troubled kids and troubled families I think seeing them once a month is not nearly enough.”

Loftus says DCF is improving its record on making those required monthly visits.

“We recently went up from I think just over 80 percent to 94 percent for the most recent month in terms of client visits,” Loftus said. “That doesn’t currently take into account every time a child is seen, but the additional technology and staffing with help further increase those numbers.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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