Metro

Revamped DCF policies will put kids first, governor says

Peter MacKinnon, social worker and DCF president SEIU Local 509, spoke at a press conference along with Governor Charlie Baker (right) and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Peter MacKinnon, social worker and DCF president SEIU Local 509, spoke at a press conference along with Governor Charlie Baker (right) and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.

Buffeted by a series of high-profile child abuse cases, Governor Charlie Baker pledged Monday to replace a patchwork of policies at the state’s Department of Children and Families with a clear, standardized playbook aimed at protecting children from violent crime at the hands of those closest to them.

The new rules, for instance, will require criminal background checks in all cases of parents accused of abuse or neglect. Currently, the agency conducts those checks about 70 percent of the time.

“DCF’s fundamental purpose is to keep kids safe,” Baker said at a State House news conference. “Let me repeat that: The work that will be done from this point forward will focus on one major objective — to keep kids safe.”

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Baker, flanked by top state officials and leaders of a union that represents thousands of agency workers, said that a chronic problem at the department has been what he called “mission confusion,” with the agency careening from crisis to crisis with scattershot plans for improvement.

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The governor, who has made nuts-and-bolts management fixes a hallmark of his young administration, called Monday for the kind of focused bureaucratic changes he suggested are needed for an effective agency.

The agency will develop a new supervision policy, with detailed, mandated steps for managers reviewing cases with front-line social workers. It will build a strategy for retention and recruitment of social workers. And it will reestablish a central Massachusetts regional office closed in 2010 after budget cuts.

Child welfare advocates responded positively to the plan Monday.

“For the first time since I’ve been doing this work, I actually saw a governor stand up and say that this isn’t working,” said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts. “And it looks like he is going to try and make change for these kids.”

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But Bradley and other advocates said updating out-of-date and inadequate policies is just part of the solution. An agency stung by recession-era cuts, they argued, will need more money. The department saw a $35.5 million, or 4 percent, increase in funding this fiscal year over the last one, which ended in June.

On Monday, Baker did not propose any additional funding, but left open the possibility of pursuing more money for the agency if it is needed to reduce the average caseload-to-social worker ratio to a targeted 18-to-1.

If much of the talk Monday was of budgets and management fixes, officials also alluded to what could be a broader shift in emphasis.

Commissioner Linda S. Spears said the department had in the past considered protecting children and keeping families together as two contradictory goals.

“For me, you don’t do one or the other. You keep children safe, first and foremost. And then, if that can be done by strengthening a family, great. If it can’t, no,” she said.

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Keeping families together has compromised child safety in some cases, she said.

Asked later if Spears’s comments signaled a substantial philosophical change at the department, deemphasizing family preservation, Baker suggested they did not. He framed it as a push for clarity of mission — put children first — rather than a major rethinking of policy.

Peter MacKinnon, a department worker and an official with SEIU Local 509 who appeared alongside the governor at the State House news conference, said the agency had pursued only “patchwork attempts at reform” in the past, replete with cloudy directives that reduced the agency to “drive-by social work.”

The new plan will “begin to turn the tide and bring the Department of Children and Families back to its core mission of doing its best each day to protect children,” he predicted.

Wrenching disclosures of mistreated children under the department’s watch have bedeviled Baker and his predecessors for years.

In July, a 7-year-old Hardwick boy monitored by the department was taken from his home breathing but unresponsive after his father allegedly beat and starved him. In August, a 2-year-old girl in the care of an Auburn foster mother died.

And the state’s independent Office of the Child Advocate is reviewing the department’s involvement with Bella Bond, the tiny Dorchester girl who was initially known only as “Baby Doe’’ after her body was found in a plastic bag on Deer Island in Winthrop in June.

Baker’s proposed changes include the first overhaul in more than a decade of the rules agency social workers follow when they receive a report of abuse or neglect from a school, emergency workers, neighbors, or relatives.

“This is the front door for the DCF concerning every abuse or neglect allegation,’’ Baker said. “It sets the table for every decision that DCF makes from that point forward — and we need to get it right.’’

The new intake rules, to be fully developed by mid-November, will include the requirement that the department conduct criminal history background checks in all cases, a standardized process for determining the danger faced by children in reportedly abusive homes, and a uniform system for assessing a parent’s capacity to care for his or her child.

MacKinnon said in an interview that social workers and supervisors are doing assessments now, but that there is no clear standard. The approach varies from office to office, he said, and is often built around the latest research trend.

MacKinnon said one critical question is whether to keep in place a system that divides cases into high risk and lower risk categories.

A New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Boston Globe review found that between 2009 and 2013, 10 children on the lower-risk track died, raising questions about the level of services they receive.

Among the other changes the administration said Monday it will pursue: a requirement that high-level managers review the most complex cases and step up efforts to reduce the backlog of people applying to be foster parents.

The department reduced its number of regional offices from six to four in 2010 after budget cuts. The agency’s western regional office now oversees more than 50 percent of the state’s geography and caseload.

The Baker administration is moving to relieve the pressure, reinstating the shuttered central regional office in Worcester by January.

Officials, though, emphasized that no reform will prevent all tragedies.

“The sad reality in our society is children sometimes suffer at the hands of the very families who should love, care, and protect them,” said MacKinnon, the union leader. “Even with comprehensive reform and investment, there is no feasible way for child protection workers to be present in each family’s life 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe. Joshua Miller can be reached atjoshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.