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Adrian Walker

Why firing Roche won’t fix the troubled DCF

Yes, Olga Roche was in over her head as the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. And, yes, her forced resignation Tuesday probably needed to happen.

But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that her departure will solve the department’s myriad problems. Firing Olga Roche, to call it what it really is, isn’t going to fix a thing.

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The scene that’s unfolded over the past few days is as familiar as it is depressing. After months of being under fire for its shockingly incompetent handling of the Jeremiah Oliver case, the department acknowledged that two other children under its care had perished. Governor Deval Patrick reversed course Monday and refused to defend her any longer. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo demanded her ouster. So did Senate President Therese Murray. Attorney General Martha Coakley, who’s running for governor, also piled on.

With that, Roche “resigned” — replaced by Erin Deveney, a lawyer who has spent much of her government career at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Just the person to oversee child welfare, right?

In a telephone interview, DeLeo told me that he believes strong management skills are what the agency most needs right now. He said that its budget has gone up in recent years, and caseloads have gone down, but the agency’s problems are more complex than that.

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“They talked about more money for technology and lowering caseloads, and we’ve done that,” DeLeo said. “Quite frankly I don’t see these incidents falling within the boundaries of those particular things.” As far as he’s concerned, DCF needs a leader who can make sure people do their jobs.

DeLeo’s passion for DCF is unmistakable. But his view of what is wrong with the agency is simplistic. It is also typical of the State House, where problems are invariably viewed as either budget problems or management problems, and the belief holds that there is no reason why a good manager in one agency can’t order people around just as effectively someplace else.

The thing is, even before Jeremiah Oliver’s disappearance, DCF was a reeling agency. Roche was, by broad agreement, a third-tier manager pushed by attrition well beyond her skill level. Her signature decision was to remove children from their families at a far higher rate than previously, a move that critics charged was all about covering her back.

The department’s entire approach needs to be revamped. It must put more effort — and, yes, more money — into prenatal care, working with families before they are in crisis. Social workers and their midlevel supervisors need closer management; they make too many life-and-death decisions in isolation. They need to work in teams and share information and ideas, an idea once promoted by Harry Spence when he was commissioner there and then abandoned.

Spence was fired by Patrick in 2007 after a couple of high-profile disasters, even though he is now regarded as the last successful commissioner and one of the few ever.

The uncomfortable truth is, a lame-duck governor cannot fix the agency. No qualified person would take the job now, knowing that a new governor will surely want his or her own person. Another uncomfortable reality is that a lame-duck commissioner, which is what Deveney is, isn’t going to wield a lot of authority, no matter how strong her personality.

For Patrick, this is a legacy issue. DCF serves the population and addresses the kind of issues Patrick spoke to so eloquently running as a candidate successfully appealing to our sense of common purpose.

Here is what he can do: He can begin the process of figuring out what DCF really needs going forward to serve families in need. He can produce a serious road map for his successor that moves beyond crisis management. He can spend his remaining time and political capital planting the seeds for an agency that saves children and families, instead of throwing them away.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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