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Patrick sees chance to ‘rethink’ state family agency

Governor Patrick  spoke Monday about the ongoing independent review of the Department of Children and Families.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Governor Patrick spoke Monday about the ongoing independent review of the Department of Children and Families.

On the eve of his State of the Commonwealth address, Governor Deval Patrick sought Monday to show he is fully engaged in trying to fix the troubled state Department of Children and Families, which has been under fire for losing track of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who is now feared dead.

At a State House press conference, Patrick said he has asked the Child Welfare League of America to conduct a sweeping examination of the family agency’s policies, social worker caseloads, and licensing rules, among other issues, and to provide periodic reports. The governor said he wants the group’s final report completed by spring so that the Legislature will have time to take up any reforms that may be necessary before lawmakers conclude major business in July.

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“I think we have a great opportunity, presented ironically, as a result of this terrible tragedy, to rethink and reinvigorate the department,” Patrick said.

Patrick said he has also ordered state information technology leaders to improve technology at the agency so that its workers can file and use timely reports. Currently, social workers have up to 30 days to log home visits into a computer system, creating a delay in timely reporting of the visits.

“DCF has little access to real-time information,” Patrick said. “There is almost certainly a technological fix here.”

The governor’s unusual Monday morning press conference came a day before he is set to deliver his final State of the Commonwealth speech, which he postponed because of a snowstorm last Tuesday.

Patrick had been largely absent from the debate over the agency last week, as outraged lawmakers grilled Commissioner Olga I. Roche for four hours at a State House hearing, and the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent agency, found that social workers at DCF apparently failed to make nearly 1 in 5 of their required monthly home visits in 2013.

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Several legislators had questioned the scope of the league’s review, saying they were worried it might ignore management problems, budget cuts, and other issues that could have contributed to the agency’s failure to monitor Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg.

One of those legislators, Senator Mike Barrett of Lexington, said Monday that he had spoken to league representatives and was satisfied that they would take a “a more expansive approach to the work.” He said he would still like to see their contract changed to make clear that they can take a wide-
ranging look at the agency.

Alec Loftus, a Patrick administration spokesman, said: “CWLA will be given the resources they need to conduct a successful, thorough review to enhance our child welfare practices. We will make any necessary adjustments to accommodate and allow for expansions of their work, if needed.”

Senate Republican leader Bruce E. Tarr, who had repeatedly called for outside review of DCF, said he appreciated Patrick’s briefing Monday and hopes the governor will continue to provide regular updates on the league’s review.

“A thorough and unbiased third-party investigation is necessary and important to correcting problems at DCF, and my hope is that the Child Welfare League of America can provide such an investigation,” Tarr said in a statement.

Patrick said Monday that he worked Sunday listening to concerns about the DCF, from Roche, as well as the head of the Office of the Child Advocate, and the social workers’ union.

“The governor is trying to get a sense of what frontline social workers and supervisors feel is needed in terms of resources and tools and reforms, to ensure the DCF is able to fulfill its mission,” said Jason Stephany, a spokesman for SEIU Local 509, which represents DCF social workers and sent several representatives to meet with Patrick Sunday.

Patrick also called several of the lawmakers who held last week’s hearing.

David P. Linsky, a Natick Democrat who had vented his anger at Roche during the hearing, said the governor asked him Sunday what issues he would like to see the league review. “And I was happy to provide my views,” Linsky said, adding that he suggested that the league examine regional disparities in DCF care, among other issues.

Linda S. Spears, the league’s vice president of policy and public affairs, was one of three league officials who were in the audience for Patrick’s press conference Monday.

She said afterward that the group has begun its review by conducting some initial interviews with officials in DCF’s central office and regional offices and by starting to delve into Jeremiah’s case record.

Spears said it was to diagnose DCF’s problems.

“We still need to talk to folks who handled this case in particular and who are doing services in the community,” she said. “So we’re way ahead of any recommendations at this point.”

Spears also said that even though she worked in the Social Services Department in Massachusetts two decades ago, she could approach the review impartially. “I’m not assuming anything about what is known, or not known, about the department,” she said. “We are looking at this fresh.”

Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, and her boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr., 22, face charges of abusing the boy, but neither has been charged with killing him. They have pleaded not guilty, and a judge last week ruled that Elsa Oliver is competent to stand trial.

Despite searches by police and volunteers in Fitchburg, there has been no sign of Jeremiah’s whereabouts since September, and Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. has said he fears the boy may have been killed.

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@
globe.com
.

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