March 24, 2014

DCF workers say rising caseloads, poor technology putting children at risk

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Massachusetts Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche. (Photo Credit Sarah Birnbaum / WGBH News)

DCF Commissioner Olga Roche speaks at a press conference. (Photo Credit Sarah Birnbaum / WGBH News)

By: Jenifer McKim
New England Center for Investigative Reporting

This is an update of a previous story

Local managers from the Massachusetts Department of Children Families care more about whether at-risk children are being visited than the quality of that meeting, leading to “drive-by social work,” according to a recent petition penned by local social workers.

New directives from the embattled agency also are coming in “almost daily,” social workers say, resulting in “disjointed, inconsistent and often misguided implementation of policies intended to keep children safe.”

The petition – written by leadership of the DCF chapter of the Service Employees International Union -- is titled “an open letter” to DCF Commissioner Olga Roche.

Morale at the agency is "at it's lowest point in recent memory," the letter said, with changing demands and increasing caseloads leading to a "toxic" workplace.

Peter MacKinnon, DCF chapter president and a long-time social worker, said the letter is currently being circulated among members and soon will be presented to Roche.

DCF has been under intense scrutiny since December following the disappearance of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, missing and feared dead after social workers allegedly failed to check on him for months. NECIR reported in February that more than more than 95 Massachusetts children whose cases were overseen by state social workers have died directly or indirectly because of abuse or neglect since 2001.

Following Oliver's disappearance, Gov. Deval Patrick commissioned a Washington-DC based advocacy group, the Child Welfare League of America, to review the agency. An initial report – released earlier this month -- said the state needs to reduce social workers’ caseloads and upgrade technology among other improvements to adequately care for the 36,000 children under its supervision.

MacKinnon says recent changes at the agency have instead required social workers to open more cases, resulting in even higher caseloads. In December, he said 385 social workers had more than 20 cases to watch, while in January that number jumped to 582. National standards state that social workers should carry no more than 15 cases, he said.

“Now we are not closing cases because everyone quite honestly is afraid to close cases," MacKinnon said. “We are worried that kids are less safe."

In response, Roche issued a statement saying that children's safety is the state agency's "primary concern." She said DCF has recently hired 90 social workers and Gov. Deval Patrick's new budget will allow for 175 new staff members, including social workers. She said the state has increased it's scrutiny of at-risk families partly because of a growing population of substance abusing parents.

"The safety and wellbeing of children is DCF's primary concern," she said. "We will continue to make progress, as needed, to strengthen the safety net for the commonwealth's most vulnerable children."

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