The Department of Social Services got carved out of the welfare office in 1980, after Edward Gallison of Somerville killed his baby girl and threw her body out with the trash. In 2008, after 11-year-old Haleigh Poutre was beaten into a coma, the agency was again revamped and renamed the Department of Children and Families. In the years in between, we’ve seen more deaths, more blue ribbon commissions, and more commissioners’ resignations than I can count.
But what we have never seen is real acknowledgment of how hard this work really is — or consistent political will to hire enough social workers to do it right.
Each tragedy brings a public thirst to punish whoever is to blame. But when the time comes to hire more, pay more, or train more, we suffer sudden amnesia.
Olga Roche might have changed all that. As the first commissioner in memory to rise from the ranks of frontline social work, many hoped that she’d telegraph their needs to the powers that be.
But instead, morale has sunk to the lowest point in years, in the wake of the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver. Roche’s decision to swiftly fire they boy’s social worker, a supervisor, and an area program manager — Roche’s longtime friend — shocked a workforce that is accustomed to dismissals going through the union.
“It makes it an unsettling place to work,” said union representative Peter MacKinnon. “People are worried: Am I going to be next?”
But lawmakers are still thirsty. Two dozen have called on Roche to step down, including Worcester Representative James O’Day, who spent over two decades as a social worker, with a stint under Roche.
“I’ve not seen any demonstrable evidence that the current commissioner has been able to show any true vision of how to turn the agency aground at this time,” he said.
In an agency forged and shaped by bad press, Roche is no stranger to public outrage in the wake of private tragedy.
In the 1990s, she headed the North Central office in the wake of the infamous “Mikey” case. Social workers had abruptly removed an 11-year-old boy from the foster home that had raised him since he was a baby, after a therapist suggested he would fare better in a home with fewer kids. Mikey’s foster mother fought back on national news. A social worker and supervisor lost their jobs. A blue ribbon commission was formed. The press portrayed social workers as clueless bureaucrats who meddle too much with families. Roche had to help clean up that image.
She must have done well, because she got promoted to Worcester in the late 1990s, in time to deal with the fallout from the case of a 5-month-old baby who vanished from his foster home. His foster father, a Pentecostal minister, turned out to have been a convicted drug trafficker.
This time, the press portrayed the agency as a careless guardian. Roche did what she could to counteract that image, too.
She earned high marks for placing children with relatives rather than strangers, an innovation that was adopted statewide. (Roche, born to a teenage mom, had been raised by her grandmother.)
“It was so exciting working for her,” said Patricia Strong, a recently retired supervisor. “She has such a vision for how she wants to see families treated.”
But she was also a polarizing figure. Some complained that she sent spies to union meetings. Others say she was too eager to tell higher-ups whatever they wanted to hear; to agree to make do on the budget they had.
Some complain that she played favorites. Co-workers resented it when Ana Melendez, Roche’s close friend from church, was hired to supervise social workers in the Worcester office, even though Melendez had never worked as a social worker with the agency.
The hire was rare, but not unheard of. Melendez had served as a clinician at a respected community-based organization, Let Us Know. (A lawyer for Melendez, Shehzad Rajwani, says Roche didn’t help Melendez get the job.)
But as Roche rose in the bureaucracy, so too did Melendez. Former co-workers describe her as a “nice lady” who struggled to keep up with all the work. Her job got even harder when she became area program manager of the North Central office, which has one of the highest caseloads in the state.
Melendez oversaw between five to seven supervisors, who each oversaw between five to seven social workers, who each oversaw 18 families or more.
Oliver’s social worker, who had just returned from maternity leave, had about 20 families to look after, including kids who seemed in greater danger than Oliver. When Oliver’s mother moved and refused to disclose her new address, he fell through the cracks. The social worker saw his sister at school, but didn’t visit him. By December, when Oliver’s sister told school officials he was missing, his social worker hadn’t seen him for months.
I don’t second-guess the firing of the social worker. Difficult as her job is, she fell down on her most basic duty. Her supervisor, too, made a mistake by covering for her. Melendez, too, could have done more to make sure kids were getting their required visits, even though her lawyer says her superiors stopped her from instilling the required discipline.
Let’s be honest: Social workers aren’t saints. They make mistakes, just like the rest of us. But unlike you and I, they have no margin of error. Their mistakes can result in death. They’re like surgeons, minus the salary.
But if we expect such perfection from them, shouldn’t we pay them more, and hire more of them? Each blue ribbon commission adds more tasks, more procedures, but never more resources to get the job done.
To be a social worker is to live with the knowledge that at any moment, a child on your caseload could be killed by a threat you didn’t see. The “risk assessment” you filed becomes the rope your supervisors hang you with.
The deaths that happen on your watch stay with you forever. “I had a child commit suicide on my caseload early on,” one told me. Another said, with something akin to pride: “In 22 years, I had 3 deaths. Two of AIDS, one of sudden infant death syndrome.” What she meant was: Her deaths were not preventable. Imagine a career where zero deaths is an unrealistic expectation.
Yet we act as though zero is a mandate to enforce, not an ideal to strive for. With each death, we demonize the entire agency, not just the social workers involved. “More than 95 have died since ’01,” our headlines blare, without mentioning how many hundreds of thousands of children flowed through the system during that time period.
If we really cared about these kids, we’d tell the good news, not just the bad. We’d talk of the decreasing number of foster children, the decreasing percentage of kids who are abused in care. We’d trumpet those rare, miracle years — like 2011 — when fatalities actually reached zero.
But we don’t. Just like we don’t consider it news when social workers spend their own money to rent a truck to help a client move, or when they raise funds through the Rise Above Foundation to send foster kids to clarinet lessons, soccer practice, senior prom.
It’s as if we think of social workers as maids, paid to clean up society’s messes before we take notice. When they fail, and nastiness disturbs us at breakfast, we fire them, even though we aren’t sure the next one will do any better.
Perhaps the most damning criticism of Olga Roche that I have heard is that she didn’t fight hard enough for the rank-and-file. Months before Oliver’s disappearance, her former colleagues from North Central begged her to transfer some of the workload to a nearby office, which had less work. She refused.
Last year, the agency struck an agreement with the union to hire 150 more social workers. But the budget request to make the hires happen stalled — until Jeremiah Oliver disappeared. Maybe Roche is to blame. Or maybe it’s the governor’s office. But we all could do a better job supporting social workers. They will be out there, doing an impossible job, long after the thirst for accountability fades.