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New England News

Social Workers Picket To Demand Lower Caseloads At Child Welfare Agency

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WAMC
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Social workers and investigators at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families picketed outside the agency’s Holyoke office today to call attention to what they say are skyrocketing caseloads.  At the same time, the results of an independent review of the troubled child welfare agency were released in Boston.

About half of the 90 staffers in the DCF Holyoke office picketed during part of their lunch break Wednesday in the latest in a series of recent demonstrations throughout the state organized by the social workers’ union.

Although DCF has hired 200 additional front-line staff since the beginning of the year it is not keeping up with attrition, according to Jason Stephany, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 509, who said people are quitting the embattled agency at a higher-than-usual rate.

"When you have people retiring, or leaving the department to take other jobs that is contributing to the ever- worsening caseload crisis."

More than 900 DCF social workers now have caseloads of 20 or more, which is four times the number from a year ago.  The Patrick Administration and the social workers union agreed last year that caseloads should be reduced to 15 per social worker or less.

" We need to get safe caseloads established."

Stephany said the caseload crisis has worsened since DCF came under intense scrutiny following the disappearance last year of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old boy who was in the agency’s care. The boy’s body was discovered last month. 

The Child Welfare League, which was brought in by the Patrick Administration to investigate DCF, said in a report released Wednesday that the agency was not responsible for Oliver’s death. But an official from the league said the department clearly made mistakes in the handling of the case. Three DCF staffers were fired.

Olga Roche resigned as DCF Commissioner last month after questions were raised about the handling of two other cases were children died.

Governor Patrick has proposed a $9.2 million increase in the DCF budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1st, but Stephany said that is not enough.

"The Child Welfare League analyzed where  we are today in terms of the staff level and determined the cost of getting the caseloads to a safe level would be $9.9 million above the $9.2 million figure, so right now we are not close to that."

Ethel Everett, a veteran social worker picketing in Holyoke Wednesday, said social workers feel “defeated.”   " Moral is the worst it has ever been. I've been here 24  years. People walk around in a daze,"she added.

Svea LeTendre, an investigator in the DCF Holyoke office said the caseload numbers can be deceiving, since the caseload refers to families.  She said a social worker with 20 cases could be responsible for as many as 70 children.

"We are only one step away from another tragedy.  We need help. We need help."

The Child Welfare League report on DCF recommended increasing staffing, improving technology to give social workers in the field real-time access to case information, and better monitoring of foster homes.

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