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Kevin Cullen

Olga Roche should fall on her sword

Despite repeated calls for her resignation, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche has given no indication that she’ll step down.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

If Olga Roche were British, she would have resigned long ago.

But she’s not, and so she’s still here, with the word embattled forever attached, like a tattoo, to her and the agency she allegedly leads, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

I have never met Olga Roche, and for all I know she is a very nice person. I know people who think as much.

But she is presiding over a deeply troubled agency, charged with protecting the most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth, and her staying in her position, in the wake of such scandal, is the height of arrogance.


It is also, for Massachusetts, typical.

People vote for the government they deserve. But there is something deeply askew in Massachusetts with the overweening power of Democrats and the utter impotence of Republicans.

If a Republican administration were presiding over this DCF, the hue and cry for change would be deafening. But this isn’t about partisanship. It’s about power. If the Republicans had as big a supermajority in the Legislature, they’d be just as arrogant and dismissive of criticism as the state’s most powerful Democrats.

When I was posted in London for the Globe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the English insistence on appearing proper drove me crazy. You think the people on Downton Abbey are bad? In the United Kingdom, people in government would resign over the littlest thing. A newspaper story hinting at a whiff of scandal. A claim by the opposition that would be a one-day story in Boston.

But the longer I lived there, and even more after I left, I came to appreciate and even deeply admire the British attitude toward public service: that if something went wrong on your watch, even if you did not personally cause it, even if you personally were not aware of it, you were ultimately personally responsible for it.


So, in the UK, people in government resigned because of a higher ideal: that the agency an individual led, that the welfare of the individuals served by that agency, was far more essential to the social psyche and the social fabric than the career of the aforementioned well-paid, well-connected government official.

That doesn’t happen in Massachusetts. Instead, the powerful are protected, excused, and we in my business are told they are really nice people with really nice families, as if the people their incompetence has harmed are not.

Again, this phenomenon is not partisan. It is institutional. It is why the FBI protected murderers like Whitey Bulger. It is why the Archdiocese of Boston protected predators like John Geoghan. It is why neither the Department of Correction nor Plymouth District Attorney Tim Cruz have held accountable the guards who presided over the killing of Joshua Messier at Bridgewater State Hospital five years ago.

Powerful institutions protect themselves at the expense of powerless individuals, whether they are paranoid schizophrenics from Charlton named Joshua Messier or poor little boys from Fitchburg named Jeremiah Oliver.

If Jeremiah’s family was rich and influential, instead of poor and dysfunctional, Olga Roche would have been gone a long time ago. If Joshua Messier’s parents had a summer house on the Vineyard and a pied-à-terre on Beacon Hill, they wouldn’t still be in the dark, without answers or justice, five years after their son died a horrible death.


If Olga Roche resigns, she’ll land on her feet. They always do. As for the social workers she leads, we pay them off in the dark, and most of them wade into the dark every day, trying to do the right thing. They deserve someone in charge who can see clearly, even if that means seeing the best thing that person can do for all those underpaid, overworked people is to fall on her sword.

It was Lord Acton who observed that power tends to corrupt and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was English. And Catholic. He sure knew what he was talking about.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.