Metro

Strains grow for DCF workers

Survey finds many feel hampered by heavy caseloads, rundown offices

Workers at the state’s beleaguered child-welfare agency contend with decrepit working conditions and an overload of cases, eroding morale and leaving some workers with traumatic levels of stress, according a survey of more than 1,500 employees.

One worker described cockroaches in the Leominster office scurrying across the same floor that babies crawl on during supervised visits with their parents. The office walls are “punched through, and the social workers sit in closets,” the worker wrote. “Shameful.”

A lawyer with the state Department of Children and Families said the agency’s attorneys, who are responsible for cases involving abuse, neglect, and the removal of children from their homes, are each saddled with 100 cases on average, instead of the 60 recommended by the American Bar Association.

Advertisement

“We absolutely do not give the attention to each case that we should,” the lawyer reported. “We feel that we are violating ethical practices and delivering poor quality every day, because it is impossible to work up to standard with our excessive case loads.”

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Morale in the workforce was “much worse” in December 2014 than in the previous year, according to those surveyed.

The confidential survey of 1,558 employees at the Department of Children and Families was conducted in December by the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent agency that monitors DCF.

The study was commissioned by the Legislature and released Tuesday, after the responses were analyzed and compiled by the Moakley Center for Public Management at Suffolk University.

While some of the problems, such as heavy caseloads, have been documented in other official reports, this one was striking for including the unvarnished voices of social workers and managers who vividly described barriers to their mission of protecting more than 35,000 children in some of the most unstable families in Massachusetts.

Advertisement

“DCF employees have spoken, and we must listen,” said Gail Garinger, who heads the Office of the Child Advocate. “It is urgent that we reduce case-loads to 15 families per [social] worker and retain experienced supervisors and managers. We have made progress in the last year, but not enough. A sustained commitment over a period of years is vital.”

Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services, said the Baker administration is committed to fixing the problems detailed in the survey.

“It’s our obligation to listen very carefully to what the staff has to say, and to respond accordingly,” she said.

Sudders said about a third of the department’s 29 area offices have recently been renovated or relocated, but she has ordered officials to inspect the remaining two-thirds to see if they need pest removal, painting, or new furniture.

Confronting the larger problem of overloaded staff, she said the administration is working to reduce caseloads from the average of 18 cases per social worker to the 15 required by the contract, although she offered no timeline.

Advertisement

“For all of us, the sooner we can get to 15, the more we can feel confident about the work in child welfare,” she said.

The workers said they are struggling to handle an influx of cases and a wave of new rules sparked by several scandals over the last two years, including the death of a 5-year-old boy on the department’s watch.

“In my 20-plus years of DCF, this has been the most stressful, trying time I’ve ever experienced,” one worker wrote.

“Services for families are wait-listed or nonexistent. It is a challenge to stay positive and encouraging others to do so as well in this current work environment.”

The report did not make clear whether the poor conditions were limited to a few offices. But one worker described an office with “water damage, gas odor, ventilation problems, mice, and fleas.”

Another worker complained that toilets are often clogged, gas leaks are common, and computers and phone lines often break down. “It is a total nightmare and counterproductive in every way imaginable,” the worker wrote.

The employees said the biggest problem they face is heavy caseloads. About 1 in 3 handle more than 20 cases each.

“DCF continues to fail completely at bringing down case-loads, the levels of which make it impossible to do the quality of social work that my coworkers and I would like to be able to do,” one worker wrote. “Most of the time I find myself struggling to keep up with the tasks required in responding to emergencies that might have been preventable if I had had more time to spend directly with parents and children.”

Another worker said there is no recognition for a job well done. “This year we did not even have our annual Thanksgiving meal at the office,” the worker wrote. “There was no mention of why not.”

About 59 percent of those surveyed said they want training in how to handle traumatic stress.

“The atmosphere is fear-driven, and people here suffer from PTSD for fear that something bad could happen on our caseloads,” one of the workers wrote.

In addition to heavy workloads, basic technical frustrations were cited. Even though the department recently handed out 2,400 iPads to its workers, about 85 percent of those surveyed said the new tool they need most is a DCF-issued cellphone.

The workers said they worry about the expense and loss of privacy when using their personal cellphones to stay in touch with families.

“The number one complaint that I receive from clients and/or providers is that I cannot be reached outside the office,” one worker wrote.

Sudders said she would see if money is available in the state budget to buy cellphones, calling it a “small, but significant” upgrade for employees.

The survey included a few positive findings.

Most workers said they have a respectful relationship with their supervisors, know what is expected of them, feel their colleagues are committed to quality work, and believe the agency’s mission makes their job important.

The employees said they remain at DCF because they want to help children, like their colleagues, and appreciate the salary and benefits.

But they said they did not believe the agency was committed to employee satisfaction and did not believe that management would listen to, and act upon, the results of the survey.

“I’ve never seen so many seasoned workers this unhappy with our job in all my years here,” one worker reported. “If people had other opportunities with equal pay, most would leave, despite having passion for child protection work.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.