Metro

Child-protection agency is making progess, but challenges remain

Advocates credit Governor Charlie Baker for following reform recommendations made in the wake of the Jeremiah Oliver case.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File
Advocates credit Governor Charlie Baker for following reform recommendations made in the wake of the Jeremiah Oliver case.

Governor Charlie Baker often points to his efforts to strengthen the state Department of Children and Families since taking office three years ago, with the hiring of 350 new social workers, the appointment of the agency’s first medical director, and the rollout of new policies designed to protect abused and neglected children.

As a result, many glaring problems have been addressed: Caseloads are lower; children are receiving more timely medical screenings; and nearly all social workers are licensed, up from about half just three years ago.

But a Globe analysis, focused on some key data points, indicates that while the agency is functioning better internally, the increased stability and resources haven’t yet led to significantly better outcomes for children.

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While a few measures have improved, the percentage of children injured while in state custody has barely budged, hovering at about 1 percent over the last three years. The percentage of children reunited with their families within 12 months of entering state custody has dropped slightly, meaning children are spending more time in foster care. And children in state custody still bounce between an average of more than two foster homes before final placement, denying them a stable environment after they are separated from their families.

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State officials and advocates said the trends underscore the long-term challenges DCF faces as it tries to turn more manageable caseloads, revamped policies, and upgraded technology into greater safety, stability, and permanency for the 95,000 abused and neglected children it is charged with protecting. The agency’s efforts were harshly criticized in a December report by the state auditor, but the Baker administration argued the audit badly missed the point, and said that an agency in free fall has been largely stabilized.

“I remember standing in front of all the TV cameras, and I never said this was going to happen quickly,” said Marylou Sudders, secretary of health and human services, recalling the September 2015 press conference during which she, the governor, and the social workers’ union ushered in an era of reform at DCF. “But what we want is to do this right.”

DCF is rebuilding after years of devastating cuts, increasing caseloads, and low morale following the deaths of several children under the agency’s watch, including Bella Bond, the 2-year-old whose body was found on Deer Island in 2015, and Jeremiah Oliver , a Fitchburg boy whose body was found on the side of a highway in 2014, seven months after agency workers lost track of him.

In recent years, the agency has not been rocked by such high-profile tragedies. But the opioid crisis has caused a sharp spike in abuse cases, exacerbating a chronic shortage of foster homes.

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Sudders said the department is trying to recruit more foster parents so children are not bouncing from home to home after they are removed from their families.

“The department is far more stable than it was in 2014 and 2015,” Sudders said. “So I believe that we are poised to now really move on improving outcomes for kids.”

The agency has seen a few outcome measures move in the right direction.

For example, repeat allegations of child abuse have dropped, which suggests that DCF is doing a better job protecting children after being warned they are in danger. In fiscal year 2015, 11.7 percent of children monitored by DCF were the subjects of a second report of abuse or neglect within six months of the first. That rate fell to 9.6 percent in fiscal 2017.

In addition, children who return home from state custody are slightly more likely to remain there without further harm. In fiscal 2017, 16.8 percent of children were taken back into DCF custody within 12 months of returning home, down from 17.6 percent in fiscal 2015.

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DCF provided the data in response to a Globe request for several metrics commonly used to measure outcomes for children in child welfare agencies nationwide, as well as any additional data that the agency uses to measure its own performance.

The figures span the period between July 2014 and June 2017. Baker appointed a new commissioner to begin overhauling DCF when he took office in January 2015, but his administration says true reform at the agency did not begin until September 2015, when he and the social workers’ union agreed to a series of policy changes designed to strengthen how the agency investigates abuse allegations, tracks missing children, and closes cases.

Mary Elizabeth Collins, a professor of social welfare policy at Boston University, said the two years since those policies were revamped is not enough time to expect dramatically better outcomes for children.

She said the challenges facing children under DCF supervision are “so serious that it’s going to take more investments and a lot more time and energy” to help them reunite more quickly with their families and ensure they are not being moved from foster home to foster home.

“It might take as much as 10 years” to see significant improvements in the lives of abused and neglected children, she said. “It’s really an investment, and investments don’t pay off quickly.”

Collins also said that unless the state addresses larger issues such as poverty, the lack of affordable housing, and opioid addiction, DCF cannot give children greater stability and safety. “DCF gets blamed for whatever goes wrong, but they’re not the only ones with the responsibility to help children and families,” she said.

Advocates credit Baker for following the recommendations of the Child Welfare League of America, which was hired by the state to review DCF after the Oliver case. The league recommended that DCF address inadequate staffing and technology and “grossly out of date” policies.

And caseloads at DCF have dropped — from an average of 22 per worker in June 2016 to 19 per worker in October 2017. The agency also hired its first medical director in 2015 and added 29 medical social workers, slashing wait times for children’s health screenings.

But advocates say DCF’s ability to reunify children with their families has been hampered by the lack of treatment available to help parents struggling with mental health issues, opioid addiction, and domestic violence.

“DCF deserves praise for reducing the size of individual caseloads and the hiring of a medical director, but there are still not enough services being provided to help keep families together in cases in which children are placed in foster care, and there aren’t enough services being provided to make it possible for foster children to return home safely and quickly,” said Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel at the state public defender agency.

Peter MacKinnon, president of Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents 2,500 DCF social workers, said the drop in caseloads has allowed social workers to spend more time counseling families. But he said 300 workers still had 22 cases each in July, which the union considers “crisis” levels. And he said not all the new policies at DCF have been implemented uniformly and consistently.

“You’re changing a system that has been functioning a particular way for decades, and that doesn’t change overnight,” MacKinnon said. “There’s no magic wand to it.”

Frustrated with the lack of clear, consistent data from DCF, the Legislature last year overrode a Baker veto and created a panel of advocates, academics, and state officials who will develop basic outcome measures that the agency must report to the public.

“We want to know if we’re on the right track,” given how much the state is investing in the agency, said state Representative Kay Khan, who helped create the panel and has a seat on it. “The whole reason for all of this is to make sure we’re doing a good job in terms of making sure kids lives are better, and we’re not falling behind.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.