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Massachusetts Outlines New Policies For Child Welfare Agency

This is a picture of Massachusetts Department of Children and Families Commissioner Linda Spears speaking at the State House.
Mass. DCF Commissioner Linda Spears outlines the policies.

Massachusetts is making further changes to its embattled Department of Children and Families following high-profile cases involving the deaths of children under the agency’s care and supervision.Governor Charlie Baker announced this week DCF will begin new intake protocols and the first-ever implementation of an agency-wide supervisory policy.

“What happens at the front door, when do you decide to bump a case up to a higher level and how does the supervisory relationship work with the people who are doing the work on the ground…to me those are the most fundamental things that leadership should be providing guidance on,” said Baker.

The policies include decreasing review times on reports the agency receives, introducing screening teams at all 29 area offices and creating one child protection response instead of a tiered system. The changes are based on recommendations made in a 2014 report by the Child Welfare League of America following the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose body was later found alongside a highway. Baker chose the woman who led that investigation, Linda Spears, to head DCF after he took office in January.

“The supervisory policy will strengthen the ability of social workers to keep children safe,” Spears said. “It does so by defining and directing what is addressed during supervision including the clinical activities that help social workers put together case-related information about a parent’s history or present risk factors including substance abuse, mental health challenges and domestic violence so that they can better understand how they impact a child’s safety now and in the future.”

Baker says screening teams will review caregivers’ criminal backgrounds and research whether they have lost custody of a child and a history of police responses to homes involved in reports. The intake and supervisory policies are expected to be in place statewide by February 1st. Baker’s administration announced a series of systemic changes at DCF in September including hiring more social workers. There are roughly 3,000 front-line DCF employees. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders says union leaders and DCF heads have created a labor management committee to recruit and retain staff.

“We can hire social workers, but we want to keep them so that we have the consistency of practices,” Sudders said. “Caseloads – we reported that in July the caseload was 20.66 to 1. As of August, it’s a little better at 19.82 to 1. It is slowly heading in the right direction. We are completely committed to getting the caseloads to 18 to 1.”

Baker explained that a single case can be valued above one as it pertains to caseload ratios, based on factors like family size. Put another way: if a caseworker ratio is 18 to 1, that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is handling 18 separate families.

Another set of policy changes is on track for March 2016.

“If we do the work associated with following through and delivering on this I do believe we will do a better job as a commonwealth of providing the kind of protection and support for these kids and their families that they deserve,” Baker said. “And I do believe that will have an impact in a positive way on tragedies.” 

Audio is courtesy of New England Cable News.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant 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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