Governor Charlie Baker, angered by a state auditor report that painted the Department of Children and Families as rife with dysfunction, dispatched a wide-ranging defense of the agency to its workers on Monday.
The sharply-worded letter said Auditor Suzanne M. Bump’s snapshot of DCF, which looks after the state’s most vulnerable children, was outdated and misleading at best, and inaccurate at worst.
Released last week, Bump’s audit of DCF — which included data from 2014, when governor Deval Patrick was in office, and 2015, during which Baker took the reins on Jan. 8 — alleged that DCF failed to report to law enforcement instances of rape, abuse, and other alleged crimes committed against children in its care.
Baker pushed back. Hard.
“The report implies and the Auditor’s press release makes an explicit claim – in the present tense – that DCF team members routinely do not report assaults on children under the care and protection of DCF to law enforcement. This is simply not true,” the governor wrote. “The incidents from 2014 and 2015 that she alleges were left unreported were, in fact, referred to law enforcement. All of them.”
Bump’s audit says it found 19 incidents of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and/or neglect of children in DCF care that weren’t formally reported to and received by district attorneys, even though they should have been. The report said district attorneys told the auditor’s office they were not contacted formally or informally about the incidents, which affected 22 children.
It remains unclear what exactly transpired.
But in a press release, Bump used the present tense, even though the audit covered 2014 and 2015.
In the letter, Baker, a Republican, said: “Stating that ‘victimization of children in DCF’s care continues to occur unnoticed by the agency’ when the data sets the Auditor uses are two and three years old is not just unfortunate and inaccurate — it’s irresponsible.”
Baker’s epistle also knocked the report for not including observations from frontline social workers, who help judges make wrenching decisions about whether a child’s safety demands the boy or girl be taken away from their family.
The governor’s words also received backing from Peter MacKinnon, the president of SEIU Local 509, which represents over 3,000 DCF workers.
“From the perspective of many DCF social workers like me, this audit does not reflect the reality of frontline child protection work, making it an incomplete picture at best. Though we are on opposite sides of the negotiating table, we agree with Governor Baker that this report is deeply flawed, to the point of being demoralizing to social workers who are going to work every day in tough, emotionally demanding jobs protecting at-risk youth,” MacKinnon said in a statement.
He added that frontline workers have a seat at the table with the administration as they hash out ways to make DCF better and that talks have been characterized by mutual respect.
“It is unfortunate that this respect is not shared by the Office of the State Auditor, who is making policy prescriptions that could impact social workers’ caseloads using outdated information and without consideration for the day-to-day demands of our jobs,” MacKinnon said.
Bump replied later Monday to Baker’s letter saying he had issued “a political statement,” but the public ought to consider “DCF’s own acknowledgment that the circumstances that gave rise to the audit findings have not changed.”
Baker’s note to DCF workers included several other points of dispute with the auditor’s report.
For example, Bump’s office used data from the state’s Medicaid insurance information system about a sample of 566 children under DCF supervision. Of that that subset, the audit said it found 260 instances where the kids appeared to have suffered an injury based on the insurance data but DCF had no record of those injuries. The auditor used this data to conclude that DCF “does not effectively identify and investigate all occurrences of serious bodily injury to children in its care.”
But Baker, a one-time state health and human services secretary and former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, said he’s skeptical of using insurance claims data as a primary tool to spot child abuse.
“It is administrative billing information, not clinical information — and anyone in health care will tell you it can be misleading if it’s used for the wrong purpose,” he wrote.
More importantly, Baker added, the data is between three and six months old and child abuse allegations require immediate attention. That’s why DCF relies on people who are mandated to report suspected child abuse, such as teachers, ER doctors and nurses, police officers, and others, he said.
The letter also notes the vast changes the embattled agency underwent since September 2015. That month, Baker pledged to replace a patchwork of policies with a standardized playbook aimed at protecting children from violent crime at the hands of those closest to them. The announcement more than two years ago followed a series of high-profile deaths and injuries of children who were or had been under DCF supervision.
The governor’s letter trumpeted the $100 million in new funding, “350 additional social workers, a staffed medical and clinical team to work with front line social workers, a dramatic upgrade in licensed social workers ... reductions in caseloads, ... new technology for social workers, a regional office added west of Worcester County, and a host of other initiatives. At a minimum, it would be fair to say that the DCF of 2017/2018 is nothing like the DCF of 2014/2015. Nothing.”
Despite the focus on children, politics also plays a role in the dispute between Baker, a Republican running for re-election, and Bump, a Democrat who formally announced her re-election campaign around the time she was releasing the DCF audit.
After an unrelated event at the State House, Baker did not directly respond to questions from a reporter about whether he thought the audit was crafted in bad faith. Instead, he reiterated the sentiments of his letter.
“I felt it was important to send a message to the folks at DCF that we admire and respect the work that they have done over the past couple years,” he said.
As for Bump, Baker said, “I’m not going to speak for what anybody’s motivation is on any of this stuff.”
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.