Governor Deval Patrick’s office began seeking potential replacements Monday for the state’s child welfare commissioner, say two people with direct knowledge of the effort, a sign the governor may be heeding calls for the resignation of Olga I. Roche after months of defending her.
“They are asking people for names,” said one of two social services advocates who received a call from the governor’s office asking for potential candidates to replace Roche.
The behind-the-scenes search comes after the recent death of two infants and the earlier disappearance of a 4-year-old boy whose body was found April 18. During the escalating controversy, Patrick had supported Roche but abruptly shifted course on Monday, saying that he had lost faith in the Department of Children and Families.
Roche, he said, needs to answer for the agency’s missteps, including how DCF workers misplaced a fax sent to them April 3 by the Grafton Police Department warning of possible harm to a 1-month-old. The fax was not discovered until April 9. Two days later, the newborn died.
On Saturday, a Fitchburg newborn died after her family missed a scheduled home visit from DCF. Those deaths followed the discovery earlier this month of the body of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg 4-year-old who was under DCF monitoring but was not seen by his social worker since last April, despite requirements of monthly visits.
“I don’t have confidence at this point in the agency,” Patrick told reporters several hours before he met privately with Roche. “And I’m very worried about the agency.”
He also declined to voice any support for Roche specifically. “I’ve posed some questions,” the governor said, when pressed to say if he had confidence in the commissioner. “They have not been answered adequately. When they are, I will come back to you.”
Still, he said, he did not want to fire Roche simply to appease critics.
“It’ll take the view that it actually does something, other than throwing another scalp to the public,” Patrick said. “We’ve got to solve problems, not just paper them over, not just make a dramatic gesture.”
The governor spoke minutes after House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo became the latest and highest-ranking lawmaker to call for Roche to resign, citing the two infants who died this month and the discovery of Jeremiah’s body by the side of a highway in Sterling.
“Quite frankly, I’m angered, I’m very much angered to see this continuing to happen,” DeLeo said at the State House, his voice rising. “It shows to me complete mismanagement on behalf of DCF. We have to take strong action. We can’t wait until the end of the year. We can’t wait for a new governor.”
DeLeo was joined hours later by Senate President Therese Murray and then by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who said they, too, believe that DCF needs a new leader.
“We are experiencing a serious crisis regarding the safety of our children, and we need real leadership now,” Murray said in a statement.
Coakley, who is running for governor, issued her own statement, saying “the time has come for Commissioner Roche to step down.”
When confronted in the past with similar calls for Roche to resign, Patrick has dismissed them, arguing that, as a 30-year veteran of the state social services system, she is well positioned to lead DCF out of scandal.
As recently as Friday, he defended DCF, saying the agency is doing “an impossibly difficult job,” despite being second-guessed by critics.
Asked for Roche’s response to the new concerns voiced Monday, DCF officials issued a statement from Jesse Mermell, a Patrick spokeswoman.
“As the governor said earlier today, it is intolerable and upsetting that the lives of children are being lost,” Mermell’s statement said. “The governor is reviewing the information provided to him in that conversation in order to assess the appropriate next steps for the department and the families it serves.”
Child welfare advocates said it would not be easy to recruit a new commissioner to take over DCF in the midst of so much turmoil.
The agency is facing several investigations by legislative committees and an outside review by the Child Welfare League of America. The social workers’ union has been picketing outside DCF offices to denounce what it describes as a worsening caseload crisis at the agency. In addition, an interim commissioner would presumably serve for only eight months, until Patrick’s term ends.
“We are concerned about who could be identified that has the range of experience at all levels of DCF and experience in state administration to come in and do a better job,” said Maria Z. Mossaides, chairwoman of the Children’s League of Massachusetts and executive director of Cambridge Family and Children’s Service, a private agency that has contracts with DCF. “He needs to make a decision about whether there’s going to be a great advantage to having the commissioner stay, versus bringing in a whole new team of people at this 11th hour.”
DCF is not the only agency under scrutiny for mishandling suspected cases of child abuse. In Grafton Monday, Police Chief Normand A. Crepeau Jr. defended an officer’s decision to fax a report to DCF warning of possible abuse of 1-month-old Aliana Lavigne, but acknowledged that his officer should have followed up with a phone call to the child protection agency.
Crepeau also said he was frustrated by comments from DCF officials who said that his department failed to follow proper procedure in the case, which is under investigation by Worcester County prosecutors.
“Police did their job,” the chief said.
Still, Crepeau acknowledged that his officer should have notified DCF by phone and said the lapse will be reviewed.
But he said the faxed report, known as a 51A, should have been sufficient for DCF to react.
“They had the 51A,” he said, “or they should have.”
Patrick faulted the police for not following up with a phone call, but said that was no excuse for DCF workers losing track of the fax.
“There’s a lot of good work, as I’ve said over and over again, being done by good people over at DCF,” Patrick said. “But we can’t keep having these kinds of losses.”Joshua Miller and Peter Schworm of the Globe staff contributed to this report.