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At DCF, death’s sad calculation

Child welfare commissioner Olga Roche is a well-liked, long-time human service administrator who was probably in over her head on day one last spring when she took over the state Department of Children and Families. It’s an axiom of state government that governors in the waning months of their final term don’t have a huge talent pool to draw from. That helps explain how she got tapped for the job.

Legislators and others started calling for Roche’s head soon after the discovery in December that 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg had gone missing while under the supervision of DCF. He is presumed dead. Several months, it turned out, had passed without the required home visits by a DCF social worker. Jeremiah’s mother and her boyfriend have been charged with the boy’s disappearance. The case drove home earlier reports that DCF social workers fail to make one in five of their required monthly home visits to abused and neglected children.

The sad truth of DCF is that children will die on the watch of even the most able public administrator. Firing Roche won’t change that fact. Death is actually baked into the system. It may be possible to diminish the number of deaths. But some are inevitable as long as the department maintains its underlying philosophy of “kin first’’ that keeps abused and neglected children in their homes — usually with social services — whenever possible.

Here’s the basic dilemma: Numerous studies show that children removed from their homes and placed in foster care are more likely to be delinquent, imprisoned, and impregnated with no means of support down the road than children who remain in troubled families. Strange as it seems, uncaring mothers and loutish fathers produce better outcomes for kids than foster placements. This is the foundation of the Massachusetts child welfare system.


In such a system, the DCF commissioner is forced to play god. The DCF universe is about 36,000 children. About 7,000 of them will be in a foster home or outside placement at any given time. In 2012, DCF officials said that the vast majority of them will return home within a year. So how many child deaths annually must a commissioner risk at the hands of parents or other adults in the home in order to reduce the likelihood that thousands of other children will suffer a miserable existence some 10 or 20 years later? The answer is eight to ten dead kids, on average. If a commissioner can’t make peace with that, he or she can’t function.


Outside of the military, it’s hard to think of another American institution where the preservation of human life is deemed secondary to the overall success of the mission. And none of these kids signed up to live in chaotic homes.

What if the department ran perfectly under the “kin first’’ model? Every social worker made their monthly visits on time. Every supervisor was a sage. Caseloads were low. Technology was up to date. DCF no longer needed to depend on lots of young, inexperienced social workers because the knees of the veterans didn’t blow out after years of carrying kids up and down the stairs of triple deckers. How many deaths then? Four? Five? No one really believes it is possible to get that number down to zero in an agency that deals with so much family pathology.

About 10 years ago, former commissioner Harry Spence tried to improve the department’s safety record by creating teams of five social workers who took responsibility for combined caseloads of a manageable size. They had flexibility to prioritize the cases and make sure that no single worker got hit with a disproportionate number of tough assignments. Staffers got to share strategies with each other instead of reporting solely to a harried supervisor. It was promising. But the effort fell apart when Spence, who is regarded as one of the top public administrators in the country, got pushed aside in 2007 by the newly elected Governor Patrick. Like Roche, Spence had become radioactive in the wake of controversial deaths and injuries to children under the department’s supervision. It happens to the best of them.


If Roche is staying on the job, she should try to reinstitute that team approach. It might save the life of at least one youngster. If Roche is driven out, Patrick will have no choice but to tap another mid-level bureaucrat. That won’t help. The best hope now rests with a new governor who brings his or her A team to focus on the saddest problem and worst state job in Massachusetts.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com