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Roche’s resignation opens way to revamp child welfare agency

At any given time there are 40,000 abused or neglected children under state protection, and no commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families can ever say with certainty that it is possible to prevent harm to every one of them. The pathologies of some of the adults in these children’s lives create insurmountable dangers. But any commissioner must be able to show that the agency has taken every reasonable step to prevent such tragedies. Former DCF commissioner Olga Roche, who resigned Tuesday, could make no such assertion. She had to go.

Governor Patrick retained Roche long after reports that Jeremiah Oliver, who would have been 5, went missing last fall while under the supervision of DCF. The Fitchburg boy hadn’t been visited by a social worker for several months. His body was found earlier this month. Subsequently, two additional children connected to DCF have died. In one of those cases, an endangered child report filed by Grafton police was misplaced for several days by DCF employees.

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Now, Patrick has tapped Erin Deveney, a former Registry of Motor Vehicles chief of staff, to head DCF, presumably until the end of the year when the governor’s term expires. There were no internal candidates at the troubled agency who could win the confidence of the public or state lawmakers. And there probably was no well-credentialed child welfare leader who was willing to step into such a mess for a short term.

The appointment of a competent public manager such as Deveney is probably the best that can be hoped for. She has some time to address systematic issues, including erratic screening procedures and outmoded technology, that do not require expertise in child welfare. She should also seek help from within the child-protection field in prioritizing DCF’s toughest cases. Even then, the agency needs consistent budgetary support from the Legislature in the coming years to relieve social workers who struggle under heavy caseloads.

Ultimately, DCF must decide if its central operating principle — “kin first” — is truly in the best interest of its clients. Most experts believe abused or neglected children fare better in the long run if they remain at home with the aid of social services. Yet an average of 10 children die each year in Massachusetts under the current system, in many cases while living with parents. As recently as the 1980s, abused and neglected children were removed from the home more readily and sent to live with foster parents. Such matters are beyond Deveney’s immediate purview. But the next permanent commissioner needs the background to wrestle with this dilemma and have the courage to change the system radically if need be.

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Roche, who was on the job for just a year, was well-meaning. Some of the calls for her resignation were rooted in a simplistic view of child welfare systems. But she was under siege. Now that she is gone, Deveney can prepare the ground for the arrival next year of a top professional in this most challenging of fields.

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