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Report offers guidance for DCF reforms

The Jeremiah Oliver case was a catalyst for the report.
The Jeremiah Oliver case was a catalyst for the report.

A new report commissioned after the death of a Fitchburg toddler whose family was under the supervision of welfare officials suggests the state Department of Children and Families look to other states for guidance in reforming the child protection system in Massachusetts.

The report, written for the Boston Foundation and Strategic Grant Partners, is set to be released Thursday during an event featuring child advocates and researchers from Washington, D.C., Tennessee, and Massachusetts.

“We wanted to perhaps accelerate the process of improvement by bringing fresh ideas from around the country,” said Paul S. Grogan, the foundation’s president and chief executive. “A lot of states are doing better than we are on this.”

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He said the foundation hopes the document is a favor to the next governor, who will be tasked with carrying out myriad reforms recommended in the wake of the case of Jeremiah Oliver, whose body was found on April 18 off of Interstate 190 in Sterling.

The child was 4 years old when he was last seen Sept. 14, 2013, nearly four months after he was last visited by a state social worker.

The new report, prepared by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank, cites five areas as critical to reforming child welfare agencies and gives examples of how other states have made those changes.

The areas include leadership, workforce training, and using data to assess the agency’s performance. The report also highlights the importance of collaboration between state caseworkers and outside service providers and using result-oriented methods to draft contracts with those providers.

“It’s not a recipe. It’s not a blueprint. It’s just examples of what we have seen over the years to be the critical things you have to pay attention to as you try to develop and implement a reform plan,” said Judith Meltzer, the principal author.

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This is the fourth outside report about DCF since Oliver’s case came to light. A May report commissioned by Governor Deval Patrick and prepared by the Child Welfare League of America found the agency was not responsible for the child’s death.

Erin Deveney, the agency’s interim commissioner, said in an interview that improvements highlighted in the new report have been made, by adding staff, improving technology, and requiring training.

For example, the new report highlights technology being used in Indiana to track how long children in the child welfare agency have gone without a visit from a caseworker.

Deveney said her agency rolled out the same type of tool in July as part of upgrades to its caseload management system. The information is available to caseworkers, supervisors, and managers.

“It will tell the workers at an immediate glance: ‘Who are the kids that I haven’t made my monthly visits for,’ ” she said.

She said the agency has also hired nearly 420 social workers and distributed more than 2,000 iPads to workers in the field. This year’s budget also mandates that social workers complete 30 hours of training.

State Senator Michael Barrett, cochairman of the Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, said that so far reform efforts have focused on hiring more social workers to handle the agency’s heavy caseload. The new report, he said, provides a road map for the future.

“This report basically sets an agenda for calendar year 2015,” Barrett said. “With a little breathing room, we can start surrounding troubled families with more support.”

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.

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