STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER plans in the coming months to implement changes at the beleaguered Department of Children and Families, part of an “unprecedented collaboration” between his administration, child protection workers, and union leaders that he hopes will help improve the agency’s performance.
The steps to improve procedures for tracking children and making sure social workers do not miss any warning signs of abuse and neglect come as the administration is working toward reducing the overall number of cases handled by individual DCF social workers and grappling with a series of tragic cases involving children who had interactions with the department.
“While I don’t expect the ship to turn tomorrow, I do believe the following: despite all of the reports and studies that have been done over the past decade concerning shortcomings at DCF, there has not been a coordinated, sustained effort to bake improvements and reforms into the daily operations of the department. The mission statement has been confusing and, in the absence of an overall playbook concerning all aspects of case practices, very hard to deliver on,” Baker said. “We are simplifying and focusing the mission: keep kids safe. Our efforts will be aligned around this primary objective.”
Previous “patchworked attempts” at reform “did little more than create a spate of misguided directives, confusing memos, and disjointed, half-complete policies,” said Peter MacKinnon, chapter president of SEIU Local 509. The result of those attempts, he said, is “a frontline that operates without clear guidance on agency policies or best practice, a worsening caseload crisis and reactionary directives that reduce much of our work to drive-by social work.”
The six reforms announced Monday, and others that are expected to be in place by March 2016, represent what both union and administration officials said is an unprecedented collaboration between labor and government. That partnership, they said, leads to confidence that the reforms will “stick” and have lasting effects.
“Once executed, I believe this blueprint will turn the tide to bring the Department of Children and Families back to its core mission of doing its best each day to protect children,” said MacKinnon, whose union represents about 2,900 DCF social workers, supervisors and investigators. “This collaboration between frontline workers and the administration will eliminate the confusing and often contradictory directives put in place in reaction over the years to high profile cases.”
Among the reforms announced Monday is retooling of the agency’s intake policy, which Baker said has not been updated in 12 years.
Through negotiation with Local 509, Baker said, the policy will be updated by Nov. 17 to include a standardized risk assessment procedure, criminal records checks in all cases, review of a family’s entire history with DCF, including current and prior contacts, review of the frequency and type of emergency responses to the home, and an assessment of parental capacity.
The DCF intake policy, Baker said last week, “is at the root of a whole series of cases that have recently come to light.”
The administration is using a May 2014 Child Welfare League of America report on the embattled child welfare agency as a blueprint for its turnaround, Baker said. The author of that report, Linda Spears, was appointed by Baker earlier this year to serve as commissioner of DCF.
In an attempt to improve retention of social workers – the average caseload, at 20.7, continues to exceed the target of 18 per social worker – Baker said management and union leadership within the agency will develop a recruitment and retention strategy this fall. MacKinnon said DCF has never operated at its target caseload.
An additional $35.5 million was included in the fiscal 2016 budget for hiring, and the department will also reinstate social worker technical positions to perform non-clinical support services for employees who have yet to become licensed. Since licensing became a requirement last year, the administration reports that 82 percent of workers are licensed, up from 50 percent before the law was signed.
Budget cuts eliminated social worker technicians in 2009.
“I think the disruptive impact of the recession and the budget cuts hurt this agency quite a bit,” Baker said.
In addition to fiscal 2016 budget increases, the House is scheduled to appropriate an additional $5 million in a supplemental fiscal 2015 spending bill this week to address immediate staffing and training needs at DCF, House Minority Leader Rep. Bradley Jones said in a statement commending the governor’s plan.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said Baker’s changes represent “a step in the right direction” and noted that the state is now funding DCF at a total dollar amount close to pre-recession levels.
“Part of what we are seeing now is a result of a pattern of cutting the DCF budget during tough economic times when the need for services tends to rise. This results in higher caseloads for DCF workers, instability in the agency, and high levels of stress on families in need of help,” Rosenberg said in a statement. “We need to commit ourselves during strong economic times to breaking this pattern during tough economic times.”
Among the other changes to DCF that Baker announced Monday morning are:
– An update to the department’s supervision policy to provide some clarity for social workers to determine when a case should be kicked up for higher review;
– A review of all “complex cases” in which there are multiple reports of abuse using an assessment of safety, stability, placement needs, wellbeing and other factors;
– Efforts to reduce the backlog of foster home applications to “meet the immediate needs for placing children in safe, caring foster homes”
– The announcement within 10 days, Baker said, of DCF’s hiring of its first statewide medical director.
And by Jan. 1, 2016 DCF will re-open its central regional office in Worcester, which was also eliminated as part of the 2009 budget cuts. As a result of the office’s closure, the western regional office has taken on more than half of the state’s geography and caseload, officials said.
Several high-profile cases that have put the department under scrutiny have originated from DCF’s western region, including the 2013 disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose body was later found along a highway in Sterling, the unexplained death of a 2-year-old girl who died last month in foster care in Auburn and the case of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma after he was allegedly abused and starved by his father.
A report on the Auburn toddler’s death and DCF’s handling of the case is expected by the end of this week, Baker said Monday.
Baker on Monday also requested that the independent Office of the Child Advocate investigate the case of Bella Bond, the 2-year-old child whose body was found in a trash bag on Deer Island in June case. In 2012 and 2013, DCF opened cases related to neglect, provided services to the child’s mother and then closed the cases.
In a statement, the Office of the Child Advocate said it will look closely at DCF’s closing of the 2013 case related to Bond and will examine state, police and other service provider involvement with the child “to see if any opportunities were missed to raise issues about her safety and well being and what lessons can be learned to prevent another tragedy like this.”
Acting Child Advocate Linda Carlisle said she hopes to complete the report within 30 days.
Attorney General Maura Healey weighed in on DCF during an appearance on a Sunday morning television show.
“It’s long been the time to fix this, that’s why I’m glad to see the Baker administration stepping forward to undertake this thorough review,” Healey said on WCVB-TV’s On the Record program. “Let’s get it done, let’s get it done quickly, and let’s get in place, once and for all, the right policies, the right practices, the right management, the right training, the right support, so that we don’t see any more instances like we saw in this tragic case of little Baby Bella.”
Once the changes are made at DCF, the administration will use data to evaluate their impact and to identify other areas in need of changes.
“It’s very important, not only putting the measures in place, but then determining that they’re effective,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. “DCF has hired, or is in the process of hiring, five people as a quality assurance team to do both what I would call clinical audits as well as looking at the data to see what other changes need to happen.”