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Yvonne Abraham

Looking for relief at DCF

She is just the kind of person you’d want a caseworker to be. In her late 20s, energetic, and with a master’s degree, she was an enthusiastic Department of Children and Families recruit.

“I was so excited to get this job,” she says. “I thought I was going to make a difference, to help these families.”

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She lasted two and a half months.

She still works with children, still has dealings with DCF. She e-mailed, asking that her name not be printed, after the awful story broke about Jeremiah Oliver, the Fitchburg 5-year-old whose caseworker hadn’t been visiting him. He had been missing for months before the state realized he was gone. The caseworker and two supervisors were fired, and rightly so.

None of it surprised this woman, who says she was woefully unprepared for what she encountered in her first weeks on the job. Hired last summer, she got 14 days of classroom training, some of it repeating lessons she had learned in college, some of it introducing her to a scary new world. This can be very dangerous work, a police sergeant instructed, if you’re ever uncomfortable going to a home, take someone with you. It quickly became clear how unrealistic that was.

She was supposed to get further training on the job, but her new co-workers were too busy to hold her hand. “We’re short-staffed,” they told her. “That’s why we hired you.”

Into the deep end she went, alone. Well, not alone: The children she was trying to protect went in with her. “I said, ‘Hey, I really need supervision,’ ” she says. “I was taken aside by people who told me to just go with the flow during my probationary period.”

She tried. Sent to court to file a request to have a child she’d never met removed from her home, she had no idea what she was doing, and no one from her office could go with her. The mother’s caseworker walked her through the process. The child was removed.

Within three months, her caseload would be 18 families. Others had more. A couple of her fellow workers didn’t seem to do as much as others. Some cut corners. But most worked enormously, heroically hard, routinely putting in 60-hour weeks. Cases are counted by family, not the number of children. One co-worker spent an entire day each week ferrying four siblings from four separate foster homes to supervised visits with their mother. She was taking care of at least 17 other families.

Such inconsistent demands, and commitment, can be a problem in, say, manufacturing, where the quality of tires or watches can be compromised. It’s potentially disastrous in a field where the well-being of defenseless children is at stake.

“I had to get out of there,” she says. “The environment was so negative and disheartening.” She was gone by Thanksgiving.

She is no outlier, says Peter MacKinnon, a supervisor in DCF’s Lowell office, and president of the DCF division of the social workers’ union. In the Leominster office, which lost Oliver, caseloads are so high that he has been called in the past to reassure nervous recruits that it won’t always be this bad. Still, in 2013 six recent hires left their $46,000-a-year jobs within the first six months.

“Workers look at a new worker coming in and say, ‘Which terrible case can I . . . pass off to the new guy,’ ” he says. “They’re looking for any kind of relief.”

New hires can’t keep up with attrition. The union did a survey late last year, which found that 65 percent of social workers in the Plymouth office were either actively looking for another job, or considering it.

Officials at DCF are trying to deal with these problems. They’ve stepped up training. The social workers’ latest labor agreement allows for caseloads to be reduced, and counted more fairly. That will require 150 more social workers, and cost $8 million annually. The governor’s upcoming budget is expected to include funding to lighten caseloads. Then, long after the outrage over the Oliver case has died down, it will be up to legislators to follow through.

They must. It won’t bring Jeremiah Oliver back. But others like him deserve the attention and compassion he was denied. They deserve well-trained, supported social workers, who will not flee, like this woman did, fearing, “I was going to lose part of myself staying there.”

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the starting caseload of the DCF worker. She had 18 cases within three months at the agency.

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