Metro

EVAN HOROWITZ | Quick Study

A look at reform efforts at the DCF

The recent death of a two-year-old in foster care and harrowing accounts of an abused 7-year-old boy in Hardwick are the latest reminders that Massachusetts doesn’t always succeed in its efforts to protect the most vulnerable kids.

Last year’s promise of reforms at the Department of Children and Families was supposed to help. New money, better technology, streamlined management, and reduced caseloads for strained social workers were supposed to address the deep problems brought to light after three children died under the agency’s watch.

Yet those promised reforms have been blunted by a spike in cases. What’s more, a broad survey of DCF workers, released in March, revealed poor morale and ongoing managerial problems.

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In many ways, DCF still seems to be struggling to fix the basic issues exposed last year, with uncertain consequences for the health and well-being of children.

Have things improved since last year’s call for reforms?

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Not as much as hoped. The deaths of Jeremiah Oliver and two other children being monitored by DCF set off urgent demands for change, including the appointment of a new commissioner and an independent review of the agency.

Since then, the state has tried to address the agency’s core problems, but along the way it has met some unexpected challenges.

Reducing caseloads: Central to the reform plan was an effort to reduce the number of cases assigned to each social worker. But while caseloads did dip for a few months, they’ve risen throughout 2015 and are now roughly where they were a year ago. The reason? Even though DCF added over 200 new full-time-equivalent employees since May 2014, the number of cases has increased just as quickly, according to information assembled by DCF and provided by the social worker’s union.

Updating technology: A lack of modern equipment was making it hard for DCF workers to submit forms, enter case notes, and upload pictures while out in the field checking on kids. New department-issued iPads are beginning to make a difference, and a program introduced this summer is providing cellphones to social workers, so that they no longer have to rely on their personal cellphones — which can jeopardize their privacy, for instance if they have to give their personal numbers to the families they’re supervising.

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Improving management: Last year’s independent review of DCF highlighted a variety of managerial concerns, including a lack of vision and weak systems of oversight. Those concerns were seconded by social workers in a December survey, where they disagreed with both of the following statements: “Management is as committed to exceptional service as they expect me to be” and “DCF is committed to maintaining high levels of employee satisfaction.” These managerial problems may get worse before they get better: Dozens of experienced managers have left the agency in recent months, enticed by the state’s early retirement program.

Does DCF get enough money?

Planning a budget for DCF can be tricky, because it’s hard to predict how many children will need protection in any given year.

An additional $18 million is being made available this year to hire and pay social workers, which should be enough to expand the workforce by several hundred people. Whether that translates into a drop in average caseloads, however, will depend on the number of new cases.

Other parts of DCF aren’t seeing the same funding improvements.

Take training costs. In any organization, a big influx of new hires means a lot of training — particularly as the agency is committed to getting all its social workers properly licensed. Yet while this year’s budget does include some new money for training, the overall funding level is well below where it was in the prerecession years.

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It’s the same story for what’s called “Family Support and Stabilization,” which helps families on the brink of dysfunction get the resources and skills they need to keep from falling apart. Funding for these programs is growing, but it remains below prerecession levels.

And while family supports are hardly a panacea — the Hardwick case shows the risk of letting kids stay home with potentially abusive family members — it’s worth remembering that 80 percent of the children being watched by DCF live at home. Finding ways to keep them there safely generally leads to better long-term outcomes.

Are there other ways to improve outcomes
for kids?

DCF plays a critical role in protecting the most vulnerable kids, but perhaps more important is to prevent children and families from needing assistance in the first place. Antipoverty measures, stronger economic growth, and more affordable housing would make a difference.

So, too, would a better integration of state services. Roughly three-quarters of DCF cases involve parents or caregivers struggling with substance abuse, which shows the value of aligning child protection and addiction services.

Yet, even with the most far-reaching reforms, tragedies will happen. That’s just the nature of the job DCF does. The agency is asked to take care of kids in the throes of terrible crisis, kids with no strong voices of their own and no committed adults to fight for their interests. In such circumstances, things will sometimes go wrong.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said DCF workers were relying on their personal cellphones to communicate with families they’re supervising.