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JOANNA WEISS

In child welfare agencies, small solutions work

This has been a tough week for the Department of Children and Families — which happens when your flaws are laid bare in a public, tragic way. Jeremiah Oliver, the 5-year-old from Fitchburg, is still missing. His mother is in jail. Three DCF workers are fired; a fourth is suspended.

And now comes the pile-on. The superintendent of schools in Northbridge accused DCF of ignoring reports of abuse and neglect. A Waltham woman sued the agency over the 2010 death of her grand-nephew. Governor Deval Patrick ordered an outside investigation. Martha Coakley, the attorney general running for governor, proposed a new child protection unit within DCF — because, she says, it’s impossible to square the agency’s mandate of protection with its mission to keep families together.

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For the most part, I’m glad for the scrutiny. Of everything state government does, there’s nothing more important than protecting kids from harm. But press-conference solutions almost always make me nervous. The rush to turn bad news around — or assuage the people with pitchforks — can sometimes get in the way of finding the right solution.

To be fair, Coakley isn’t new to this issue; she oversaw child abuse cases for years in the Middlesex District Attorney’s office. She knows, from experience, that the problems DCF faces are are complex, and decisions can take too long.

But will shifting chairs or adding bureaucracy make a difference? Or — given that child welfare decisions are made on a case-by-case basis — should we be looking for smaller, less flashy ways to increase the odds that every case goes right?

That’s the take-away I got after talking to Tracey Feild, director of the child welfare strategy group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A 30-year veteran of the field, she’s a believer in checks and balances. And she knows some not-so-revolutionary reforms that work. Here are a few:

Good supervision: Yes, this sounds basic. But when budget-conscious state legislators look at funding for child welfare, Feild told me, they often press for people on the street, and downplay the need for managers. Of course, it’s crucial to keep caseloads down. But well-trained supervisors — who know how to manage, and what questions to ask — are critical, too.

Otherwise, Feild said, a child’s fate could rest with a single caseworker — who might be inexperienced, overworked, or unfamiliar with cultural differences in the families she serves. No matter what, she could use a fresh perspective, along with a sense that the agency has her back.

Without a second set of eyes, Feild said, “you’re leaving everything in the hands of an individual, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Perspective: If two sets of eyes are good, then multiple sets are better. That’s why in several states, such as Connecticut, a child isn’t removed from his home without a “child safety conference,” involving a caseworker, a supervisor, a parent, and a neutral third party.

In some states, that third party is a formerly negligent parent who turned her life around. Washington State hired a former client to direct a “parent partners” program, in which mentors — people who have been there — help troubled families connect with support services, and deal with stigmas and hostility.

The majority of child-welfare cases involve not outright abuse, but neglect, Field said — due to poverty, mental health, or substance abuse. And sometimes, a parent who feels comfortable — safe and respected within the system — will agree that separation is best.

“They’re not taking good care of their kids, and they know it,” Feild said. “You can have a very intense discussion with them about what it is they need.”

Accountability: “Quality assurance” is a buzzword in business, and it’s a word Feild uses, too. Indiana, Utah, Iowa, and Wisconsin put their cases through regular “Quality Service Reviews.” New York’s child pretection agency has an internal review system called “Childstat”: every week, the deputy secretary chooses two open cases at random and examines them at length, asking questions about each decision. Every manager in the agency attends; everyone else in the system can watch on closed circuit TV.

The message is clear: Everyone’s accountable, all the time. That’s not the most exciting headline in the world. But in practice, it could make all the difference.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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