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DCF reforms will require workers to focus on family problems

Governor Charlie Baker announced updates to DCF's intake policy in November.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker announced a new wave of policies for the state’s beleaguered Department of Children and Families Monday, even as a union official representing agency workers said morale is low and there have been problems implementing changes rolled out last fall.

The policies will require social workers to focus more tightly on specific problems that put families in DCF’s orbit — from heroin abuse to mental illness — and detail how often agency staffers should talk to teachers, doctors, and other professionals involved in endangered children’s lives.

Baker, who did not spell out exactly when the changes will go into effect, has made fixing the department a top priority since he took office last year — holding periodic news conferences to update the public on his administration’s actions.

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In the fall, the governor outlined changes to DCF’s “front door” — the procedures the agency uses to screen initial reports of neglect or abuse. The policies he announced on Monday focused on how to monitor children and families once they are fully in the system.

Peter MacKinnon, a department worker and union official with SEIU Local 509 who has worked closely with the administration to overhaul DCF policies, criticized the implementation of the “front door” changes.

“The training on this new policy has been inconsistent at best and inadequate at worst,” said MacKinnon, standing next to Baker at a State House news conference. “Some of the trainers don’t seem to have a solid understanding of the policy reforms we’ve worked so hard to institute.”

MacKinnon also said some local DCF managers “are having difficulty understanding and implementing the new policy.”

Local 509, which represents DCF workers, has generally praised the Baker administration for making changes workers have long advocated.

But the gradual implementation of those changes — and the persistence of high case loads — has left many frontline workers demoralized, he told the Globe. “I’ve been at DCF for 18 years and [morale is] the lowest I’ve seen it in my career,” MacKinnon said.

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The governor and his top aides acknowledged the union’s concerns at the news conference. The average caseload-to-worker ratio is about 21-to-1, they said, well above the targeted 18-to-1.

“On the front lines, additional staff cannot come onboard soon enough,” said Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, who later added, “We can’t put children at risk of abuse and neglect on a wait list while we hire up.”

According to Baker, the state has added nearly $40 million to DCF’s budget over the last three years to pay for new supervisors and social workers. Baker also included $20 million more in his latest budget proposal. State and union officials added that the department’s attrition problems — it has long lost social workers at a rapid pace — have eased up in recent months.

Linda S. Spears, the DCF commissioner, attributed the training problems identified by MacKinnon to a quick rollout of the changes in handling DCF cases. She said more coaching of employees is planned. Spears added that the administration is meeting with local managers on a regular basis to ensure that the new policies are put in place.

DCF, under the changes announced in the fall, is now required to run criminal background checks on all parents accused of abuse and neglect, and other people in the household over age 15. The agency in the past did not run those checks in all cases.

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DCF workers must also request 911 call history and responses to a home; frequent calls to emergency services can be a red flag.

The agency has also dropped a system that divided cases into high-risk and lower-risk categories. The two-track approach faced sharp scrutiny when The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, in a story published in the Globe, found that 10 children assigned to the lower-risk track died between 2009 and 2013.

The Baker administration and SEIU Local 509 announced three new policies Monday:

■ First, they are streamlining existing policies for assessing families under DCF’s watch — focusing more narrowly on problems like drug abuse or domestic violence that triggered the agency’s involvement, and requiring assessment updates every six months.

■  Second, they are creating Massachusetts’ first detailed policy for monitoring children still in their parents’ home — clarifying practices around, say, checking in with a child’s teacher.

■  Third, they have created a more detailed policy for determining when and how a case should be closed.

Baker says the changes he is putting in place are designed to create a coherent playbook for an agency that has taken a scattershot approach. Clear policies, he has suggested, can save lives.

“We are building, with the help of many others, a department that can keep kids safe and makes keeping kids safe its highest priority,” Baker said Monday, trumpeting a net increase of 170 employees since July.

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The governor acknowledged, however, that the state still has an “enormous amount of work to do,” and the job of improving protection of the most vulnerable Massachusetts children is probably never done.


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. Click here to subscribe to Miller’s weekday e-mail update on politics.