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Evan Horowitz

Lawmakers, advocates focus on DCF improvements

One of the most basic things we do through government is make sure kids are safe. In recent months, three children have died while under the watch of the Department of Children and Families. The fallout has led to a change of leadership at DCF and inspired considerable public outrage.

In addition to the outrage, though, there’s been a lot of activity. Legislators and advocates have been working together to identify the key issues plaguing DCF and to start fixing them.

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What are the key issues at DCF?

Different groups have drawn attention to different problems, but there are four that seem to have attracted the most consistent attention.

Excessive caseloads. No matter how good caseworkers are, there’s only so much they can do in a day. And the more they’re stretched, the more likely they are to miss a check-in with a family or to quit, as evidenced in DCF’s high turnover problem. Many DCF caseworkers handle more than 20 cases at a time. The governor, the House, and the Senate have all recommended funding increases that would be used to hire new social workers and lower the average caseload to 15.

Outdated technology. Caseworkers have had to rely on personal cellphones when visiting kids or checking on families, and they couldn’t use those devices to enter notes or submit forms. Following a successful pilot program, DCF officials are now moving forward with a plan to provide this kind of remote access.

Poor management. Sometimes, even the best caseworkers will make mistakes, and of course not everyone you hire will be among the best. As part of an independent assessment requested by the Patrick administration, the Child Welfare League of America found that DCF lacks an effective system for “gathering quantitative and qualitative information about work processes, practice quality, and case outcomes.” As a remedy, it recommended not just greater supervision but better systems for tracking DCF activities.

Insufficient vetting of foster and adoptive families. DCF has guidelines to keep kids out of dangerous situations. Sometimes, this means blocking caregivers with criminal records. But there are other times when caseworkers can exercise discretion, for instance when they think the benefits of keeping kids with a relative outweighs the risks associated with a criminal record from years or decades earlier. While the House wants to tighten the rules and leave less room for such discretion, the Child Welfare League of America has made its own, more flexible, recommendations.

Are any other approaches being considered?

Assuming all the proposals are approved, funding for DCF will still be about $100 million below where it was before the recession.

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Often, the kids that DCF monitors come from families that have been involved with other government programs, including food stamps, homelessness assistance, and mental health supports. Indeed, the Child Welfare League estimates that about three-quarters of all the kids in DCF care come from families struggling with substance abuse.

If these other programs were more effective, it could keep DCF from needing to intervene in the first place. Think of it as a way to improve DCF by helping kids in other ways.

Consistent with this strategy, the Legislature has been working to expand drug treatment and the Senate has proposed a funding increase for the “Healthy Families Home Visiting Program,” which provides in-home counseling and support to pregnant women and young parents.

Will these changes fix DCF?

One reason for skepticism is that the funding increases being considered aren’t actually that large. Even assuming all the proposed initiatives get passed into law, funding for DCF will still be about $100 million below where it was before the recession (adjusted for inflation). And given a recent spike in cases, it’s unlikely that the money targeted for new hiring is sufficient to bring caseloads down to 15.

More generally, though, even if the state does fix the big problems at DCF, there will still be tragedies in the future. The kids DCF cares for are extremely vulnerable, and they have no natural constituency: no strong voices of their own and no committed parents to fight for their interests. Occasionally things will go wrong and kids will get hurt. That’s just the nature of the job.

Evan Horowitz can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com.
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