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editorial

Woes in child welfare agency run deeper than Jeremiah Oliver case

DCF Commissioner Olga Roche appeared before the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight in January about the Jeremiah Oliver case.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/file

DCF Commissioner Olga Roche appeared before the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight in January about the Jeremiah Oliver case.

Outrage over the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg is starting to yield to a more dispassionate assessment of the state Department of Children and Families — and the urgent need for reforms, to make sure other children don’t fall through the cracks.

The Child Welfare League of America, in an interim report on the Oliver case, is the latest to point to systemic problems in the state agency charged with protecting 40,000 neglected or abused children. While the social worker and managers who lost track of Oliver were utterly negligent, it now appears that the agency’s problems run deeper than a few bad staffers. A recent lawsuit alleges that DCF social workers fail to make one of every five of their required monthly visits to abused and neglected children. If that’s remotely true, it’s not a rogue employee problem; it’s a staffing problem.

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The Welfare League, which represents hundreds of public and private child protection agencies, recommends that no social worker be required to carry more than 10 ongoing cases and four active investigations — for a total of 14 in all. At DCF, the average is 18 cases per social worker. Governor Patrick has agreed to fund a 15-to-1 ratio, which would go a long way towards solving this longstanding problem.

More funding is usually the first and most predictable demand that child-protection advocates make when a social welfare agency falters. But in DCF’s case, there is reason to believe that cutbacks have indeed hobbled the agency. In fiscal 2009, its budget topped $836 million. By 2012, after a brutal economic crisis, it had fallen by almost $100 million.

Patrick’s budget would allow for hiring an additional 177 social workers and providing technological upgrades capable of giving real-time updates on family visits by social workers. But even under Patrick’s plan, those social workers would continue to work in relative isolation. Former child welfare commissioner Harry Spence was on the verge of implementing a team approach requiring five social workers to share a caseload of manageable size. That presented opportunities for more interaction with colleagues and flexibility so that no single worker would be overwhelmed by a disproportionate share of tough families. But Spence was shown the door back in 2007 before he had a chance to implement this promising initiative. The team approach needs to be revived, if only as a pilot project.

There are other ways to build more safeguards into the system, such as finding a way to draw on the expertise of DCF retirees. Turnover among case workers is predictably high in an agency that deals with such stressful conditions. But there is a cadre of retired social workers whose resilience and passion for helping others allowed them to survive professionally for decades. Now retired, they could provide guidance to less experienced workers and assume some ongoing cases.

Ultimately, every social worker must be allowed to use his or her best judgment in making agonizing decisions about when and whether to remove a child from its parent’s care. They shouldn’t feel overly constrained by DCF’s central operating principle, which is known in Massachusetts as “kin first” and in other states as “kinship care.’’ Prior to the 1980s, abused and neglected children usually landed with foster parents they had never met. But during the last few decades, child welfare workers here and elsewhere have made every effort to keep the child at home or place them with blood relatives. Such placements are less traumatic and generally lead to better long-term social outcomes than foster care placements with strangers, according to most child welfare experts.

The current system still results in the deaths of about 10 children under DCF supervision each year, in many cases while living with parents who are supposed to protect them. This creates an agonizing dilemma: Is it necessary to accept the deaths of several children each year to give thousands of children a shot at a more stable future?

The “kin first” model shouldn’t be sacrosanct. For now, however, investigators must focus on immediate issues, including DCF’s screening of calls, home visits, use of technology, caseloads, protocols around runaways, and other practices. One area of special importance is the identification and assessment of risk factors that distinguish a high-risk case from a less serious one. It would be especially helpful if the Child Welfare League investigators could determine if there are better computerized tools out there than those being used by DCF.

The very nature of the problems being addressed by DCF defies a one-size-fits-all solution, and no agency can protect all the endangered children all the time. But in the wake of the Oliver tragedy, the agency must be able to assure the public that every reasonable measure is being taken to protect vulnerable children. Today, nobody could possibly believe such a claim.

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