The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families needs to reduce social workers’ caseloads, upgrade its technology, and make other changes to adequately supervise the 36,000 children under its supervision, according to an initial assessment by the Child Welfare League of America.
The advocacy group, hired by the Patrick administration in January to review the department’s operations after the disappearance of a 5-year-old boy, also recommended increased monitoring of foster parents with criminal records, more action to find children who have run away from foster families, and quicker medical screenings for children entering foster care.
“The safety and security of children, especially those entrusted to the supervision or care of the state child welfare agency, are of vital concern to the citizens of the Commonwealth,” the interim report says. “While far too many jurisdictions are facing failures in their ability to keep a child safe, these failures cannot become acceptable.”
The report did not grade the DCF’s overall management and said it would be wise to keep the current leadership intact while the group finishes the review. Governor Deval Patrick has stood by DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, even as dozens of lawmakers and GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker have called for her resignation.
“Experience has shown, that in many instances the lack of consistent leadership and the challenges of leadership transition may further compromise the challenges facing the agency,” the report said. The group’s final report is expected to be completed in mid-May.
Some of the recommendations in the report mirror a push by the Patrick administration and union representatives for increased funding from the Legislature to hire more caseworkers and upgrade DCF’s technology to keep better tabs on children.
Union leaders have complained that workers have sky-high caseloads, making it difficult to track children closely. Patrick has proposed additional funding for 177 positions in the 2015 budget to meet its previous commitment to reduce the current average workload of 18 cases per social worker to 15. DCF officials said they have already added 90 new social workers since the beginning of the year and are in the process of implementing the Child Welfare League’s other advice.
“The whole idea is for [the Child Welfare League] to look at our policies, look at our agency, look at our staffing, and give us recommendations to create the safest system that we can for the Commonwealth,” said John Polanowicz, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
DCF also disclosed for the first time that it is falling short of its own policy of conducting a medical screening for every child within seven days after the department gains custody and doing a more comprehensive exam within 30 days.
Currently, only 77 percent of children in the department’s care have had a medical exam within that 30-day timeframe (though 90 percent received at least some medical care in that period).
The Child Welfare League urged DCF to move even faster, completing the initial medical screenings within 72 hours, something Polanowicz said would be challenging, but that DCF would try to accomplish.
The department also added 15 people in its regional office in Leominster, for a total of 144, some of whom were added after the Child Welfare League said that additional personnel were needed.
The same office was charged with checking on the 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, Jeremiah Oliver, who went missing last year from a family under the department’s supervision. DCF officials later acknowledged that caseworkers had not visited the boy for months and that the child is now feared dead.
State Senator Michael Barrett — Democrat of Lexington, who supports more funding for the department — welcomed the recommendations for more staff. “I don’t think you crack this nut unless you end the isolation of some very demoralized case workers with more staff,” he said.
Barrett said he also supported keeping the agency’s existing management in place until a new governor takes over early next year, because it would be difficult to recruit anyone in the interim.
“You don’t force out leadership in the last 10 months of an eight-year term,” Barrett said. “You don’t leave the agency rudderless.”
But another lawmaker questioned the call to retain current leadership, particularly since the report did not directly address the performance of the top management.
“It seems to be to be an unsupported finding,” said Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, Republican of Gloucester, who has been critical of Roche. “I am not convinced that the existing management provides stability, given all the questions about the commissioner’s performance.”
The agency that conducted Thursday’s review, the Child Welfare League, based in Washington, D.C., is a national association of child welfare agencies, including DCF. Both the department and the Child Welfare League said they have yet to determine how much the nonprofit will be paid for the work.
In addition, the Legislature and State Auditor Suzanne Bump are working on their own reviews of the department’s operations. The agency is also the target of a long-running lawsuit by Children's Rights, a New York advocacy group that has sued Massachusetts and other states for not doing enough to protect children.
The Massachusetts agency ranks far worse than most states in a number of statistics compiled by the federal government on child welfare, including the number of foster children who are visited monthly by case workers.
Last month, the Globe reported that there are many children under DCF supervision who are missing on any given day, including 134 foster children listed as runaways on Feb. 2, despite assurances by Roche to state lawmakers that no other children were unaccounted for or in danger like Oliver. The agency later said Roche was not talking about runaways or another long-
missing child, Marlon Devine Santos, a 5-month-old who disappeared from foster care in 1998 and is still considered missing by police. The report suggested additional steps to help find missing children, such as taking photos of every child in department care.
The agency has also come under fire for granting waivers for foster parents with criminal records, including more than 500 last year alone. The Patrick administration said the vast majority were for people who were convicted of minor crimes more than a decade ago and wanted to take in relatives.
But the Child Welfare League report suggested that the agency should always bar people convicted of certain crimes from becoming foster parents and implement “heightened case monitoring, home visitation, supervision, or case oversight” for parents granted waivers.
Representative David P. Linsky, Democrat of Natick, said he thought the report was a start, but said he hopes the final version goes further in addressing how the agency can “change the culture within DCF” to prevent future tragedies.
“It’s a very preliminary report,” said Linsky, chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which has been holding hearings on department operations.
“Whether it’s this management team or another management team, someone needs to step up and take charge and say, ‘We recognize that this is a problem.’ ”