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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Child welfare agency shows signs of panic

Is this really what we want?

In the wake of the Jeremiah Oliver disappearance, the Department of Children and Families has been moving to take many more children from their homes.

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The figures, from the juvenile courts where DCF lawyers request custody of the children, paint a picture of a state agency no longer willing to take chances. Weighing the good of keeping families intact against the possibility of harm coming to children, they are erring on the side of caution, again and again.

Against the backdrop of an unthinkable tragedy, this may sound like the smart, obvious, compassionate choice. But in the real word of fragile families and vulnerable children, it can be anything but.

There is, in fact, an air of panic in the numbers coming out of DCF.

Since 5-year-old Oliver’s disappearance, and probable slaying, was discovered in early December, months after a DCF social worker last visited his mayhem-filled home, DCF requests to take custody of children have soared all over the state, and especially in Worcester County, where Oliver lived.

In December, DCF made 52 percent more of those requests than it did the previous December. In January, the number jumped by 86 percent over 2013. The 77 removal requests filed in Worcester County last month more than doubled the 31 filed at the same time last year.

Each request can involve a single child, or seven. We don’t yet know how many of the requests have been approved by courts statewide. But in Worcester, judges ordered almost all of the removals requested in the first three weeks of January, according to DCF figures.

It’s a familiar pattern, repeated all over the country whenever a child in state care goes missing or dies. Agencies like DCF come under fire — and the fire this time, from the media and the Legislature, has been brutal — and they react by becoming way more risk-averse, removing more children from their homes, pushing decisions into the hands of judges.

“It’s very concerning,” said Gail Garinger, the state’s child advocate. “Does it represent children who can’t be safely maintained at home? Or is it DCF not wanting to take a risk and asking the court to make that decision?”

If every one of these removals is a clear-cut case of children in imminent danger, that’s pretty troubling: It means we have been overlooking hundreds of endangered kids before now.

That’s possible, but not likely. These numbers are so high that at least part of the increase is panic-driven. It means some at DCF are more concerned with protecting their own behinds, instead of the kids they’re supposed to be serving. That’s troubling, too.

Peter MacKinnon, DCF chapter president of the social workers’ union, said that in some offices, the jump in removals stems from an appropriate abundance of caution. In others, he said, “managers are really putting the pressure on, saying the only way to keep a kid safe is to take custody.” Some judges are alarmed at the surge of requests, though none of them would be interviewed.

“When I would see these increases, it was clear some of the cases that were being brought shouldn’t have been,” said Lillian Miranda, who retired as first justice of the Franklin/Hampshire County Juvenile Court in 2011. “But they were being brought just to put responsibility for the decision in the court.” Other removal requests plainly did belong in the courtroom, she added.

Whatever works, you might be thinking. Better safe than sorry. It’s an understandable impulse, but not necessarily the best one.

Removing a child from her home is an immensely traumatic event, with lasting consequences. Research by Joseph Doyle, a professor of economics at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, has shown that, when it comes to marginal cases of kids being considered for removal, those who are taken from their families face far worse outcomes down the line than those who are kept in their homes: higher rates of teen pregnancy, unemployment, and delinquency.

That’s why DCF worked so hard under previous head Angelo McClain to keep families together, shifting resources to provide better home support. Removals had been climbing since his departure, fueled partly by rising abuse reports. But with Oliver’s disappearance, the pendulum has swung back with greater, and potentially destructive, force.

“The incentives are lined up so we are overly aggressive,” Doyle said. “People get penalized if they make the wrong decision and leave the child in the home. And they don’t if they remove the kid from the home and there are bad consequences later.”

A reversal like this is a very big deal. If this is the direction in which Commissioner Olga Roche wants to take the DCF, she ought to do so thoughtfully, and not as a knee-jerk reaction to an awful loss.

The increase in removals has put a strain on the entire system, which is still operating with the same inadequate resources as before. Judges in some courts complain that they’re spending so long on removal requests that other cases are delayed. Attorneys for both sides are overtaxed. And Lord knows the foster care system had enough problems before the floodgates opened.

“We have to take these cases,” said Miranda, the retired juvenile court judge. “If this is one way to prevent [harm to children] then yes, bring more cases. But it’s not the long-term solution.”

For DCF officials, removals are a sure way to avoid risk, and to prove they’re doing their jobs. But really doing their jobs — protecting children and families — is way harder than that, and far more expensive. It means social workers involving themselves with families in a way Oliver’s protectors did not. It means human beings making judgments that will always carry the potential for error, and tragedy.

There is more than one kind of mistake to make here. Removing a child can save her life. But it can also ruin it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.

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