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DCF hires 230 new workers, but caseload remains high

The Department of Children and Families, after months of controversy and the deaths of several children on its watch, has hired more than 230 new employees, but the agency has yet to cut into the high caseloads frustrating many child-care workers.

Erin Deveney, whom Governor Deval Patrick selected to lead the struggling agency in April, described the new hiring to state lawmakers Tuesday, but noted that DCF also lost employees because of turnover. Factoring in retirements and resignations, she said, the department had 143 more social workers at the end of June than it did at the beginning of the year.

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Despite the gains in hiring, however, she told members of two House committees that she is unsure when the agency will reach one of its chief goals: a steady rate of 15 cases per worker. In May, she said, the state average was about 20 cases per worker, similar to what it was before the first of the year.

“I believe in being transparent, but not creating false expectations,” Deveney said when asked by lawmakers about a time frame for lowering the case-to-worker ratio.

Peter MacKinnon, president of the union chapter that represents child welfare workers in the state, said the problem is the surge of new employees has not matched the rise in the number of cases they face.

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“Caseloads remain at crisis level,” MacKinnon said at the State House hearing Tuesday.

Deveney acknowledged that the agency is taking on more cases, adding to worker caseloads.

She suggested the caseload ratio could improve as the new workers are included in the data.

MacKinnon told lawmakers that the numbers of cases have increased because local managers who provide initial screenings for the department “remain fearful” that they could make a wrong decision on reports of neglect or abuse, as DCF has come under greater scrutiny. As a result, they take on more reports for more full investigations.

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DCF says more than 7,000 children in Massachusetts are in foster care, and the agency serves more than 40,000 children overall.

Much of the criticism of the department has centered on the case of Jeremiah Oliver , a 4-year-old Fitchburg boy who disappeared while his family was being monitored by the state.

He was later found dead, his body wrapped in a piece of luggage discarded on the side of a highway in Sterling.

Deveney said the agency is changing a number of policies with Jeremiah’s death in mind.

Those include: a revised training model, peer support for social workers dealing with trauma, and a requirement that staffers meet face to face whenever they transfer a case.

“The legacy of Jeremiah Oliver demands that we make these lasting improvements to increase child protection in the Commonwealth,” Deveney told legislators Tuesday.

This spring, criticism of the agency reignited when an infant in Grafton died shortly after state child welfare workers misplaced a fax from police, warning that the baby might have been in danger.

The department also plans to hand out 2,300 iPads by the end of the month so workers can file reports and tap into real-time data from the field, Deveney said.

The tablets are meant for employees who spend most of their time on the road, she said, including lawyers fighting cases in courtrooms and social workers meeting with families and children.

Cayenne Isaksen, an agency spokeswoman, said DCF also hopes to launch a data dashboard for social workers and their supervisors by the end of the month.

She said the dashboard will help staff manage case assignments, tasks, and calendars.

The recommended changes stem from a report completed in May by the Child Welfare League of America, which identified several problems in DCF’s structure and policies. Reviewers found an agency that they said was overburdened and underfunded.

One move outlined by Deveney appears connected to another controversy that dogged the agency recently.

The agency plans to hire a medical director, following a legal battle surrounding Justina Pelletier, a Connecticut teenager who spent months in state custody after doctors accused her parents of medical child abuse.

The succession of problems facing the agency led to the resignation of Commissioner Olga Roche in April.

Deveney said the department is now about halfway through a 60-day implementation plan for the most critical changes recommended by the Child Welfare League.

“I know we have a ways to go to improve the public’s confidence in the work this department does each day,” she said.

State lawmakers from the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight and the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities said Tuesday that they were pleased to see DCF make quick improvements. But some committee members expressed reservations about the high caseloads.

Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, said she visited a DCF office in the western part of the state where workers said they manage as many as 25 cases each.

Farley-Bouvier expressed concern that such heavy caseloads bog down DCF staff.

“If we’re doing more paperwork than we’re doing social work, then we’ve got a problem,” Farley-Bouvier said.

Most of the improvements to the agency are covered by the Legislature’s new budget, which sets aside $827 million for DCF, a boost of $48 million over the agency’s funding in the previous year.

Representative David Paul Linsky, a Natick Democrat, said that along with the funding increase, lawmakers are asking for reports on 15 different areas of the agency in the next year to maintain oversight.

“It was the number one priority of the House during the budget deliberations that recently completed to turn this agency around,” he said.

MacKinnon, the union head, said Deveney is already winning support from rank-and-file workers at the department.

“There is a sense of true hope, true commitment,” he said, adding that department has seen a “dramatic improvement” from where it was a year ago.

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZackSampson.
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