Governor Charlie Baker joined other state officials Monday to announce changes to Massachusetts’ Department of Child and Families, which has been embattled with high-profile cases involving the deaths of children under the agency’s care and supervision.
Governor Baker outlined a series of reforms he says will fix systemic issues and outdated policies within DCF. Most of the actions 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 reforms we are announcing today and the work that will be done going forward will build on the overarching theme of the Child Welfare report,” Baker said. “That DCF’s fundamental purpose is to keep kids safe.”
Among the changes to be rolled out as early as October are new intake and case supervision policies, reducing a backlog of foster parent applications and improving social worker retention and recruitment. Baker says as of July the statewide caseload was 27 cases for every social worker. Total caseload is up 30 percent from 2013. Baker says the goal is to get the ratio to 18 to 1, a mark he’s willing to increase funding to meet.
“What’ve said before is we will figure out how to fund what we need to fund to make the agency successful,” the governor said. “That’s our position.”
The fiscal 2016 budget includes a $35.5 million funding increase to DCF for hiring social workers. Baker, a Republican, says by the end of the year the state will reopen the central DCF regional office in Worcester, which closed in 2009 under then-governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat.
“The current western Mass region stretches from Worcester to the New York border and currently serves more than half of the families that are involved with DCF,” Baker explained. “It’s too big to be one office and needs to be split into two separate operations.”
Baker, in audio courtesy NECN, says the agency will also reinstate social worker technician positions to complete non-clinical tasks. Those positions were cut in 2009. Peter MacKinnon, DCF Chapter President of Service Employees International Union 509, joined in the announcement. He says this is an unprecedented collaboration between the state’s 2,900 frontline social workers and agency administrators.
“I’ve worked in child protection for nearly two decades and for much of that time through multiple administrations and legislatures, the commonwealth has larger pursued knee-jerk reactions and attempts at quick fixes,” MacKinnon said. “It ignored the steep funding shortfalls and deep fractures in the child protection system. That said, in our meetings with Governor Baker, [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Marylou] Sudders and Commissioner Spears, we have felt a new and different sense of urgency in the thoughts, plans and designs of those proposed reforms.”
Meanwhile, Baker is requesting the state Child Advocate investigate the case of Bella Bond. The 2-year-old’s body was found in a trash bag in June near the Boston Harbor. DCF had received reports of neglect regarding Bella. DCF Commissioner Linda Spears says the new policies can help social workers prevent such tragedies.
“In the case of Bella Bond, would we look more deeply at the history of the family in that case?” Spears said. “Would we look more deeply at the fact that there had been multiple 51As? Would we look more deeply at the actual characteristics and issues that were presenting to that mom when we saw her? And really assess, I think in a much deeper way, how that affects her ability to parent that children then, there and how. Then to make decisions that flow from that. I think part of what’s not clear for workers is how do they balance this question of a mom who may be well-intended, but totally incapable of caring for her child.”