The social worker monitoring a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma after apparent starvation and dehydration is one of hundreds who are unlicensed at the state Department of Children and Families, officials said Friday.
State figures show 592 social workers, or about one in five at the agency, did not meet a legal deadline of July 1 to get a license.
Linda S. Spears, the department’s commissioner, acknowledged the shortfall in an interview with the Globe on Friday night. But she said she is proud of the agency’s progress since the state Legislature put the licensure requirement on the books last summer.
“What we wanted to do is . . . work towards getting everybody licensed as quickly as we can possibly do that,” she said. “We’ve gone from about 54 percent, 55 percent, licensed last fall to just about 80 percent now.”
Advocates stressed the importance of licensure Friday. “The more that people are trained in the field that they’re practicing, the better,” said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts.
But Bradley and others said the licensure issue is probably less important in the Hardwick case than questions about the supervision the social worker received as she interacted with the boy and his father, Randall Lints. Lints was arrested on assault and endangerment charges on Tuesday.
“The real question for me is: Was there really a comprehensive look at the parenting capacity of this man?” said the state’s child advocate Gail Garinger, who is conducting a detailed review of the case.
The Department of Children and Families is conducting a review of its own that is expected to be completed within 60 days.
Spears, the commissioner, declined to speak about the details of the case. But she said no discipline had been meted out to the social worker, whose name the department is not releasing publicly, as of Friday evening. “We need to look at the case and be guided by the facts of the case,” she said.
She added that the agency aims to learn from what she called a “really, really difficult” experience.
“For me, the important thing . . . is to really pay attention to what is happening, to understand what happened in this circumstance, and to do our very best to make the adjustments that we need to make,” Spears said.
The department came under withering criticism last year after the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a young Fitchburg boy.
Then-governor Deval Patrick commissioned a report by the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America that found the agency was not responsible for Oliver’s death, while criticizing it for inadequate staffing and technology and “grossly out of date” policies for protecting children.
Spears was then vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League and became the face of the report. Charlie Baker, after he was elected governor last fall, recruited her to run the department.
She quickly discovered how difficult it was to convert recommendations she’d made while in the private sector into reality in the public sector. “It’s a lot easier to tell than do,” she said, in a March interview.
Progress has, indeed, been slow.
The case load for the average social worker has ticked down from 21.26 in March, to 21 in April, to 20.8 in May. The social worker in the Hardwick case had an average case load of 18.8 over the first seven months of the year, according to state officials.
All those figures are above the case load of 15 recommended by accreditation agencies.
An early retirement incentive program led to the departure of about 100 employees last month, many of them in management, creating some instability beneath the commissioner.
And the agency does not have the resources to hire pediatric nurses for every one of its regional offices, as Spears once advocated.
But the commissioner sounded optimistic Friday about the agency’s progress and willing to adapt to the fiscally tight times.
She suggested, for instance, that the agency might be able to organize a network of outside doctors to assist the agency in lieu of hiring more nurses.
The Hardwick case has brought its share of anguish and recrimination. The boy’s mother wrote on Facebook this week that her son’s injuries marked a “clear case of negligence on the state’s part.”
“This cannot keep happening to children,” the mother added.
But thus far, the case has not sparked the firestorm that came in the wake of Oliver’s death. Bradley, of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, praised Spears on Friday for her efforts to improve communication with outside agencies.
And she said the department’s problems cannot be fixed in a matter of months, even as she acknowledged the difficulty of watching the Hardwick case unfold in the meantime. “I keep saying that we need more time,” she said. “And then this happens.”
Baker, in his first comments on the case, told reporters at a State House press conference Friday that he felt “terrible” about what had happened.
But the governor said he would await the department’s review before making any judgment on who is to blame.
Baker also suggested, as other advocates did Friday, that there were adults with no connection to DCF who also had interactions with the boy and who raised concerns about his well-being. Their actions, he said, must be “a big part of the review.”
“The child was in school all the way through the end of the year,” he said. “The child had regular check-ups with clinicians. . . . The child was also seen by other family therapists who were working with . . . the dad and with the son all the way through June into July.
“I guess one of the big questions is: So how did this end up happening?”