Metro

DCF fires 10 workers who failed to get licenses

The state Department of Children and Families says it has fired 10 employees for failing to get social work licenses, as required by a new state law.

The ousted workers can apply next month for lower-level positions within the department that involve mostly menial duties like driving children to appointments, officials said.

State lawmakers passed the licensing requirement last year in response to several tragedies, including the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg boy who was discovered missing after a DCF social worker skipped eight mandatory monthly visits to his home. His body was later found on the side of a highway.

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Under the law, new DCF workers were given nine months from their hiring to pass a social work exam, the sole requirement to obtain a license. DCF workers hired before January 2014 were required to pass the test and get licensed by last July.

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The department was not able to license all of its workers by those deadlines, however, and granted some of them an extension until Sept. 30.

Andrea Grossman, a DCF spokeswoman, acknowledged this week DCF has not licensed all of its workers, but said the agency is making progress.

Currently, 2,479 employees, or 87 percent of the workforce, have obtained licenses, up from 66 percent in January 2014, she said. Another 369 have either applied for hardship waivers, are in the process of taking the licensing exam, or are going through hearings that could lead to their termination.

Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, said the firings show that DCF is obeying the law, which was designed to ensure that social workers are qualified to serve in the field.

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“I am happy to know they’re taking it seriously,” she said.

She said she was extremely concerned, however, that DCF workers who speak Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages may not be able to pass the exam because of linguistic barriers, and will be fired, robbing the department of “cultural competency.”

The law allows the DCF commissioner to grant a six-month waiver to workers with foreign language skills or diverse cultural backgrounds.

Maria Z. Mossaides, head of the Office of the Child Advocate, said the state may need a broader exemption to ensure the licensing requirement does not weed out workers who speak foreign languages.

“The good news is that the agency is taking all of these requirements seriously, and they’re following the requirements of the law,” Mossaides said. “But there’s a larger discussion around what are the core competencies needed to do this work. How can we engage people if we can’t talk to them in their own language?”

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Some DCF workers have also complained that the exam focuses on social work generally — be it in a school, hospital, or nursing home — and not on the specific skills needed to serve as a child protection worker.

Jason Stephany, a spokesman for SEUI Local 509, said the union, which represents DCF workers, supported passage of the licensing requirement and is helping workers through the exam process.

But he warned that firings could have a negative effect on the department, which has struggled with heavy caseloads.

Reach Michael Levenson at michael.levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.