Cover story: Cause and effect at DCF – the road to tragedy

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On March 31 the state Office of the Child Advocate, which oversees the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, unleashed a scathing report resulting from an anonymous survey of state social workers and their managers.


The results were an indictment of the agency and its stewardship, particularly that of the recently departed Gov. Deval Patrick administration.

There were numerous complaints of understaffing. The report stated that a growing number of social workers were taking on more than 20 cases despite the state’s contract with their union calling for a 15:1 caseworker-to-family ratio, which is in line with federal standards.

“This environment is dangerous and is a tragedy waiting to happen. Please help us get to a place where we can safely manage our cases before another child dies and we are blamed!” — survey respondent

Locally, the situation was at its worst. Workers in the western region, which covers all four DCF offices in Central Massachusetts, including two in Worcester, reported a lower morale than any of their colleagues and nearly the lowest job satisfaction. The Worcester East office had more workers with 20+ caseloads (63) than all but 5 of the 29 area DCF outposts at a time when caseloads were jumping to 20 or more for about one-third of all DCF social workers.

Survey respondents were encouraged to include comments with their answers. Many did not hold back and wrote things like, “… the commissioner’s office doesn’t care,” “I keep hoping for a decent commissioner again,” and “over the last six years I watched the department move away from the basics, such as child protection, to the detriment of the agency.”

Very few of the comments were positive. They liked and believed in their jobs, and hated the working conditions.

The toxic stew that was DCF was not going to get better in a hurry. The Baker administration had changed commissioners but had not provided the significant budget increase needed to allow social workers to carry a more manageable level of caseloads and devote more time to individual families.

“This environment is dangerous and is a tragedy waiting to happen,” wrote one respondent. “Please help us get to a place where we can safely manage our cases before another child dies and we are blamed!”

Upon releasing the report, the Office of Child Advocate urged state officials to move to a 15:1 caseworker-to-client ratio as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, DCF was bleeding workers. While 700 had been hired in just a short time in response to the death of a Fitchburg boy more than a year ago, about half that number left because of retirement, frustration, or in the case of many of the new social workers, fear that the caseload level was more than they could handle.

One new hire wrote, “I’ve yet to receive supervision and I started two months ago.”

How did we get here?
The crippling caseloads that led to the OCA report, according to sources, can be traced to policy changes made in January 2014. The directive, a copy of which was obtained by the Sun, called for immediate policy changes in light of the department’s Investigation Report after the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg.

This letter played a central role in how DCF got where it is today.

Worcester Sun source

This letter played a central role in how DCF got where it is today.

The 5-year-old had been last seen by DCF workers in May 2013 and was reported missing in December of that year. His body was discovered in April 2014 along Interstate 190 in Sterling.

The January 2014 directives reaffirmed monthly home visits by caseworkers and called for a dramatic increase in the number of cases “screened-in,” or reviewed in person, by caseworkers. Typical screening-in levels ran about 60 percent of all case referrals. Under the new directive that level rose to about 90 percent.

From the directive: “Effective immediately, every office is directed to screen in for investigation any report alleging abuse or neglect of a child five years old or younger in which the parent(s) presents any, or a combination, of the following risk factors: young parents; or parents of any age who have a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, or unresolved childhood trauma.”

The author of the directive was Paul Fitzsimons, acting deputy commissioner for field operations. Attempts to contact Fitzsimons were not successful and, according to the agency, he has retired from DCF.

Charts (PDF): Click the links for comparisons in DCF Staffing & Workload and Caseloads between December 2013 and May 2015

The directives caused a spike in the number of cases and the caseloads of DCF workers. The Jan. 6 memo acknowledged the agency did not have the resources to adequately deal with the increased workload. “We recognize that this directive will require additional resources and we are working to secure appropriate funding to hire additional staff.”

The initiatives went forward nonetheless.

In addition, the directive created “a culture of fear in many offices,” according to Peter MacKinnon, a DCF union spokesman who works as a supervisor in the agency’s Lowell office. The union quickly struck back, asking for the policies to be rescinded, but to no avail. It still remains in place with Gov. Charlie Baker’s new commissioner, Linda Spears.

Peter MacKinnon

Nora Boedecker / SEIU Local 509

Peter MacKinnon, DCF union spokesman, speaks at a DCF Oversight Committee hearing in January 2014

A letter from the union, SEIU Local 509, to then-DCF Commissioner Olga Roche and dated Jan. 9, 2014, three days after the directive was issued, stated in part: “Furthermore, we firmly believe that all children deserve the level of attention needed to ensure their safety and wellbeing. We are therefore concerned about screening procedures that focus solely on children age five and under. With such a significant amount of time and effort devoted to young children alone, we worry that cases involving older children could fall through the cracks.”

Later that same month MacKinnon ripped the new directives while addressing a legislative DCF Oversight Committee, again to no avail.

“It’s the culture. All these secretaries and commissioners think their life’s blood is based on whether they can live within that budget instead of pushing back and saying we could use a little more money here.” — state Rep. James O’Day, a former social worker

State Rep. James O’Day, D-West Boylston, was a social worker for more than 20 years. When asked about the increased caseloads as a result of the directives, he said, “Almost always when policies are being determined and discussed there is an effort by management to get input from the field, but oftentimes their input from the field is ignored.”

The increased referrals have increased the number of crisis-level workloads, which the union describes as those over 20 cases per worker. According to a union analysis, crisis-level workloads in the Worcester East and Worcester West offices increased from 11 in December 2013 to 107 in May, an increase of 872 percent. Overall, state crisis-level workloads increased from 385 to 1,250 during the same period, a 225-percent increase.

Enacting the policies that drove the caseload increase without securing the funding beforehand is part of the problem, O’Day said.

“It’s the culture,” he said. “All these secretaries and commissioners think their life’s blood is based on whether they can live within that budget instead of pushing back and saying we could use a little more money here.”

While additional funds have been appropriated and additional caseworkers hired, it is taking time for the caseloads to come down with the numbers as high as they are now. In addition to dealing with normal departures, such as retirements, new caseworkers are seeing “intensity from the demands of management exceedingly high,” O’Day said. “The demands are more than they can manage. … They can’t keep up the pace.”

Committing to a solution
The union’s predictions in January 2014 of another tragedy proved to be prescient.

In July, a Hardwick boy under DCF care was found in a coma. This month, a two-year old Auburn girl in DCF care was found dead in her foster home.

The Office of the Child Advocate report in March had been a blip, a one-day story. It was the Hardwick and Auburn incidents that once again caught media attention.

The union and its friends in the Legislature know that attention will once again turn away to something else. They are working to get a commitment for adequate DCF funding before the light goes out.

“There has been an organizational culture of really not wanting to acknowledge there is a caseload problem.” — Peter MacKinnon, DCF union spokesman

“I’m not going to let this go off my radar,” said state Sen. Anne Gobi of Spencer, whose district includes the town of Hardwick.

Sen. Anne Gobi

Sen. Anne Gobi

The House and Senate chairs of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities both say a new infusion of funding could happen as soon as the Legislature begins work on a supplemental budget in September.

Senate Chairwoman Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, said she does not believe caseloads are the only issue at DCF, citing a lack of social worker training, licensure and the need for an upgrade in technology, among other things

“My goal is to get these caseloads manageable,” she said. “But it’s not as cut-and-dried as caseloads. We could hire more social workers tomorrow; you still have to train them.” At present, she noted, DCF is lurching from “crisis to crisis. You’re just constantly going to the next fire.”

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan

House Chairwoman Kay Khan, D-Newton, said, “I absolutely support getting caseloads to 15:1, the national standard.” She said she believes Spears “is pretty committed to getting to that place. I’d be in favor of an even lower number.”

Khan estimated that the new hires necessary would cost the state $30 million. “That’s the big question, where do we get the money?”

For a long time, the answer has been that you don’t.

In 2008, the state changed the name of its Department of Social Services to the Department of Children and Families in an attempt to put a different face on the organization. But caseloads remained well above the national standard and only increased from there. In a state budget of more than $38 billion, a $30 million caseload adjustment would amount to an increase of less than a tenth of one percent.

At present, the union is cautiously optimistic that significant change is coming. In recent days Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have pledged to address the growing caseload burden. MacKinnon said he has never heard a governor or an appointee in Sudders’ position make such a statement in public.

“There has been an organizational culture of really not wanting to acknowledge there is a caseload problem,” MacKinnon said.

What is frustrating, he said, is that DCF commissioners know as well as anyone that high caseloads are the driver of everything bad that happens in the system.

“Research has shown the greatest predictor of success in child welfare systems is the relationship the family has with their social worker. If you have a caseload that’s low enough you can sit down and talk to these families,” he said. “It’s about sitting at the kitchen table, getting to know them.”

Rep. James J. O'Day

Rep. James J. O’Day

O’Day said funding shortfalls at DCF go back at least 30 years, and added that he, too, puts the blame on DCF commissioners and the secretaries of Health and Human Services who oversee them for refusing to advocate for more funding to hire social workers.

“For 30 years the major cry from those doing the work on the front lines has been, “We need to be able to spend some time with these families,’ ” O’Day said. “It can’t be just a five minute visit. You have to establish some kind of rapport, some kind of trust.”

With caseloads of 18 to 20, DCF social workers have no chance to develop that relationship, he said.

“There’s a reason there were six children in that foster home in Auburn. The reason we max that out is there aren’t any resources.”

“You’ve got to do the whole thing. It may be expensive but you can’t have kids dying. We seem to have more and more kids coming into the system. The new commissioner supposedly is good, but I don’t know what she’s done yet to prove that.” — state Sen. Harriette Chandler

O’Day said there are many legislators who understand the needs of DCF, but that they are outnumbered by others who believe efficiencies can be made. “There are conservatives who need to have all the proof that not one penny is being provided that isn’t being accounted for,” he said.

State Sen. Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, joins the chorus of local representatives who see a particularly chaotic DCF situation in Worcester County and are pledging to do something about it.

She said she understands the need to immediately bring caseloads to 15:1 before other necessary changes are made to the agency.

“You’ve got to do the whole thing. It may be expensive but you can’t have kids dying,” Chandler said. “We seem to have more and more kids coming into the system. The new commissioner supposedly is good, but I don’t know what she’s done yet to prove that.”

O’Day said it should not be a surprise that the latest high-profile DCF cases were in towns overseen by the two Worcester DCF offices.

He criticized former Commissioner Angelo McClain, who was appointed by Patrick in 2007 and left in 2013, for combining the central and western Massachusetts offices, moving oversight of the four Worcester County offices to Springfield.

“A lot of Angelo’s changes were not appreciated,” he said. “And I told the governor not to appoint Olga Roche,” who succeeded McClain and eventually stepped down in the wake of reports that social workers had lost track of Oliver. Roche resigned in 2014 and was replaced by Erin Deveney, a former chief of staff with the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

O’Day said nothing good will happen with DCF until 15:1 becomes reality.

“The cases have gotten far more complicated,” he said. “The level of poverty has gotten a lot worse. Opiate addiction is getting worse. People don’t want to look at the macro picture; we have some poor pockets of people. We are always willing to put more money in, but never enough.”

Social worker licensure has been an issue of late and some of the social workers attached to the Auburn case were unlicensed. Last year, DCF made a move that its workers found puzzling. Even though a large number of DCF workers remained unlicensed, it ended a longstanding policy of paying for those licenses and the licensing exams. Once again, the union fought back.

A letter from the union to then-Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz dated Sept. 25, 2014, read in part: “Based on prior statements and testimony, we are certain you agree that licensure is a worthwhile investment in the protection of at-risk children in in Massachusetts.” The decision was later rescinded.

The number of unlicensed DCF workers has been decreasing again in the months since the agency resumed paying for exams and licenses and is now under 20 percent, a number made up mostly of newer hires who have nine months from their start date to obtain a license, according to union spokesman Jason Stephany. The percentage was about 40 percent as recently as last fall.

Asked to respond to the caseload controversy, DCF spokeswoman Andrea Grossman said, “The Department takes very seriously the safety of the Commonwealth’s children, and has recently hired 300 new social workers and is utilizing a $35 million increase in this year’s budget to continue instituting new technology and improving our licensing and staff training to reduce caseloads.”

Spears, the new DCF commissioner, was a vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America, which advocates for 15:1 caseload ratios. But that will not necessarily translate to the same level of advocacy in Massachusetts.

A DCF official said all of the recent new directives the union opposes are being reviewed, and that the $35 million increase in the current state budget along with $2 million in a previous supplemental budget “allows us to maintain the significant staff increases we have made and advance even further our ongoing efforts to lower caseloads down to 18:1.”

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