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Yvonne Abraham

DCF an agency of awful realities

This has been the week of the leadership implosion at the Department of Children and Families, when folks took in the disspiriting mismatch between that floundering agency and its all-important mandate and decided the solution was to lop one head, Olga Roche’s, off the top.

Eager for something more transformative, I decided to ask the various candidates for governor how they would change the life-or-death, flesh-and-blood odds at this agency which deals with our most endangered children and families.

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And their answers were . . . completely in character.

Better communication. Better case management. A new bureaucratic structure. You get the idea. Nothing that seems up to the moment, in ingenuity or passion.

The system has been reeling since late last year, when it was disclosed that Jeremiah Oliver, 4, had been missing for months before state social workers noticed, because they had failed to make required visits to his home. The deaths last week of two infants under DCF supervision were the final straws that made Roche’s departure Tuesday inevitable.

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And so it was that I asked the candidates: What would they do as governor that might save kids like Jeremiah?

Democratic hopeful Juliette Kayyem, the first to return my call, sees better communication as part of the solution. In all three deaths, she said, police or teachers or neighbors had information, but it wasn’t getting to DCF or being acted on quickly enough. We need “more capacity to step back and say, ‘Where is all this information leading us, how can we deliver state . . . services better?’” she said.

Closer supervision is the key for Treasurer Steve Grossman and health care expert Don Berwick, both Democrats. “People are crying out for hands-on leaders who accept responsibility,” said Grossman. Clear guidelines and standards will minimize tragedies, he said. Both also want to reduce caseloads and improve technology.

“Making sure agencies get the resources they need, that would be my fight every day,” Berwick said.

Noting that all three recent deaths were in the Worcester area, Republican and former health and human services secretary Charlie Baker wants a regional scrub of DCF offices, “to figure out where the soft spots are and fix them.” He and Democratic pharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone want better communication between DCF and schools, child-care providers, and police. “They’re your eyes and ears,” Baker said.

In addition to improving tracking and accountability for workers, Attorney General Martha Coakley would restructure DCF, creating two divisions, one dedicated to keeping families together, and another to assess the threats to children. “Because we try to keep families together, we don’t take the right kids out soon enough,” she said.

I think most of these ideas are great. I would love the next governor to drive standards up and caseloads down at DCF. But I would also love the next governor to think more expansively than this.

DCF is really The Department of Fixing Everything That’s Wrong with the World. No other agency is expected to treat more of what plagues us. No other agency is automatically held responsible for bad outcomes, even when it is functioning well. Poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, and cruelty drive tens of thousands of children to its care. DCF doesn’t hurt children. Adults who have no right to be near them do.

Even though doing so might be negligent politics, I can’t help longing for the candidates to acknowledge the awful truth that, even if it were possible for DCF to run with the efficiency of an MBA case study, children will still sometimes die. It simply is not possible to remove every child who might be in danger from her family. It is not possible to supervise away judgment calls and the human errors that inevitably accompany them. It is not possible for one agency to cure what ails broken families.

The public, understandably, has no tolerance for these truths.

That’s why we’ve seen so many DCF commissioners jettisoned over the years.

And why we’ll see it again, no matter who is governor.

More coverage:Joan Vennochi: Will DCF case taint Martha Coakley? | Veteran manager Erin Deveney takes over as child welfare chief | Timeline of Mass. child welfare agency’s woes | Adrian Walker: Why firing Roche won’t fix the troubled DCF | Farah Stockman: Is the next DCF chief going to do any better? | Kevin Cullen: The answer isn’t just pumping more money into DCF

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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