I’m no fan of Olga Roche, but I must say I didn’t greet news of her resignation with cheers. Anyone who did should ask themselves this: Is the next person really going to do better?
Think about it. It’s not like the governor can do a big blue ribbon search for a miracle worker to fill this job. The end of Deval Patrick’s tenure is fast approaching. No miracle worker is going to come on board for a matter of months. Miracles take time to work. Next year, we’ll have a new governor who will appoint a new commissioner, and that person will take time to get up to speed. My fear is that instead of stabilizing this agency, Roche’s resignation just ensures more uncertainty and turmoil.
Keep in mind that Roche herself was appointed interim commissioner exactly one year ago. It looks like we’re going to have four commissioners of the Department of Children and Families over a 24-month span. If you think that’s good for an institution, you’re nuts. That’s the real reason the governor kept Roche on so long. He decided it would be better to shore up her weak leadership with outside help, rather than create more chaos by removing her.
But the recent deaths of two infants — as yet-to-be-determined causes — provoked a firestorm of criticism that even that logic could not withstand. House Speaker DeLeo led the charge, “visibly angry.”
Of course I believe in the need for accountability, especially when it comes to our most vulnerable children. But I think our instincts can lead to cures that are worse than the disease. For instance, what was the “cure” that Roche put in place in the wake of the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, the case that initially brought so much scrutiny? She ordered every single call on every single child under age 6 to undergo a complete investigation, no matter how outlandish or malicious the complaints appeared to be. Suddenly, social workers were spending their time running after bogus complaints by vindictive ex-husbands, rather than caring for families they knew to be in jeopardy. Caseloads skyrocketed, creating an unsustainable amount of work.
“When you are running wildly around trying to address every problem, something is going to fall through the cracks, and that’s what we wound up with here,” said James O’Day, a Worcester state representative who spent 24 years as a DCF investigator. “It was reactionary.”
Roche’s policies were supposed to stop a death, or provide her cover if one occurred. Her policies failed, on both accounts. That should tell us something. We need to pause and take a breath. We need real, long-term plans to build up the agency based on proven strategies, not a rash of bad press. Reactionary doesn’t cut it.
As much as I believe Roche’s response to the Oliver case was counterproductive, I still feel a bit of humility is in order. It’s easy for politicians to demand a resignation, and present the scalp to the public as proof of a problem solved.
But the Department of Children and Families has more than 3,000 social workers and something like 100,000 kids under its watch. It is probably the state’s most complicated agency. It interfaces with the justice system, the prison system, the mental health system, housing, domestic violence, and public assistance. It’s worth asking: How many of the politicians who called for Roche’s head could have done a better job themselves?
This afternoon, I called Speaker DeLeo’s office to ask if he has ever run anything that large. “What’s the largest agency he has ever been in charge of?” They said they’d get back to me. I’m still waiting.