Last year, as an advocate scrutinizing Massachusetts’ child welfare agency, Linda S. Spears made a series of sweeping recommendations to rescue the agency from a string of scandals, including the death of a 5-year-old boy on the department’s watch.
Now, as it turns out, Spears herself is the one trying to put her plan into action.
And the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Children and Families is discovering just how challenging it is to turn lofty goals into reality.
Spears said she does not have the money, in the midst of a budget crunch, to act on some of the recommendations she made in a report just a year ago, such as hiring pediatric nurses for every regional office and additional social workers to ease the overwhelmed staff.
“The report gives us a template,” she said Tuesday, one month after taking over the beleaguered department. “But writing a report is a whole different thing from trying to get it done.”
She added with a laugh: “It’s a lot easier to tell than do.”
Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed 3 percent budget increase for the upcoming fiscal year will allow the department to fill vacancies, Spears said, but will not allow her to hire additional social workers, who are currently handling more cases than she recommended in her report. And Baker’s proposal to trim 4,500 workers from the state payroll through early retirement incentives could encourage veteran managers to leave. That could exacerbate a recent exodus of staff but could also allow Spears to hire some of her own managers.
Advocates say it will be hard to make significant change, given the budget constraints.
“We have seen, time and time again, new commissioners come in and, in the last few decades, we have not seen the systemic improvements we’ve needed for the kids,” said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts. “We are hopeful that she will be able to lead the change, especially with the national resources that she can bring to the table.”
Spears took over an agency still reeling from the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg boy whose social worker missed eight monthly visits, as well as other bungled cases. The tragedies sparked public outcry last year and the resignation in August of Commissioner Olga I. Roche. Until Spears took over in February, the agency had been led by a state transportation official with no child welfare background.
Baker recruited Spears to serve as commissioner after she reviewed the department for the Child Welfare League of America, a Washington-based nonprofit where she worked for the last 22 years. Her report faulted the department for out-of-date policies, poor technology, and lack of staff.
She said Tuesday the department has started to address some of those problems.
Since January 2014, the department has hired 644 social workers, supervisors, and managers. But a rash of retirements and departures means the agency only has a total of 292 more social workers than it did last year. And an influx of reports of abuse and neglect, driven by heightened sensitivity after Oliver’s death, has added to the overall workload.
Department workers currently handle 18 cases on average, instead of the recommended 15. About one in three handle more than 20 cases each — what the state social workers’ union calls “crisis-level workloads.”
Spears said her top goals are to reduce caseloads and boost worker morale, which she said was “really bad” last year.
Spears said the agency is also scrambling to comply with a new state law that requires every social worker and investigator to be licensed by July. To date, about 1,800 of the 2,500 workers have been licensed, and Spears raised the possibility that some may need waivers.
The department has also handed out 2,400 iPads to social workers, allowing them to log home visits they make from the road so managers can spot missed visits like those that plagued the Oliver case. But department policy still gives workers 30 days to enter visits into the system. Spears said changing the policy will require union negotiations.
Spears said she is also trying to tackle other goals in her report. She called, for example, for the hiring of an in-house medical director, but said it will be easier to find an outside doctor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who can help screen children entering foster care and review the cases of children with complex health issues.
Other proposals, such as pediatric nurses for every regional office, are not even in the planning stages, due to lack of money, she said.
She said she remains undaunted.
“This work, in my mind, is really special,” she said. “You have to have the ability to feel like you can be creative, feel like you can focus, feel like you can have support. And what I saw in the department, despite all the challenges last year, is a lot of potential.”