Once again, the elephant in the room with the state Department of Children and Families is the high caseload each social worker carries. The upshot is that the number remains higher than recommended federal standards despite the hiring of more than 300 new social workers.
December’s DCF-focused dustup between state Auditor Suzanne Bump and Gov. Charlie Baker, a Democrat and Republican respectively, and both running for re-election, was not about caseload size. It had more to do with the contents of Bump’s audit of the agency and Baker’s objections that it was sloppy, reliant on old data and unfair to the social workers.
The audit produced four findings:
- DCF does not effectively identify and investigate all occurrences of serious bodily injury to children in its care.
- DCF does not report all critical incidents affecting children in its care to the Office of the
Child Advocate (OCA).
- DCF does not report incidents of abuse, neglect, and/or sexual abuse of children in its care to district attorneys’ (DAs’) offices for investigation whenever it is required to do so.
- DCF does not complete its fatality investigation reports and submit them to OCA within the established timeframe.
The governor’s approach was notably unlike the standard political mea culpa that follows criticism of the child protection agency. Instead of a meek promise to do better and some targeted firings, Baker fired back at Bump.
“I was dismayed to see the Auditor put out an audit that relied on data that was 2-3 years old and talk about it like it happened yesterday — especially when everyone knows so much has changed at DCF since the fall of 2015,” Baker wrote in a memo to DCF leaders.
He added, “for this report to ignore nearly everything you have done for the past two and a half years to improve the agency’s ability to do its work strikes me as wrong. … I was also disappointed the report did not include any observations or commentary from frontline social workers. ”
It was a move that earned him the appreciation of SEIU Local 509, the union that represents DCF social workers.
State Rep. James O’Day, D-West Boylston, a former social worker, said the auditor’s report “… painted a broad picture that everybody is missing things and routinely not making reports to the police department, and I don’t think that’s accurate at all.
“The governor has made some real strong efforts to make DCF a better agency,” O’Day said, noting the addition of more than 300 new social workers during Baker’s time in office. “You can’t get perfection in that agency with what you’re dealing with.”
Caseloads are a key component of DCF work, a nagging problem that the political theater, aided by the media, often refuses to address in a meaningful way.
Local 509 spokeswoman Christie Stephenson said the union was dismayed by the lack of focus on caseloads.
“It was not one of the metrics the auditor reviewed. In her discussion of the report, Bump noted that much progress has been made at the agency including on caseloads but that this audit purposely looked at areas outside of those reforms,” Stephenson said. “To us separate from the audit methodology, to level such criticism at the agency (or really to evaluate it at all) without discussing caseloads and social workers’ perspective, is incomplete.”
Bump announced a run for a third term on Dec. 6 and released the DCF report shortly afterward. The loudest voices criticizing Baker’s handling of DCF have come from Democratic candidates vying to face Baker in the November general election.
In that vein, it would not be surprising for the union to join in along with the Democratic establishment. But that hasn’t happened.
Local 509 instead has pointed out that the audit focused on a time period prior to significant Baker administration reforms undertaken in the past two years.
Stephenson said, “… it seems to me that there might be political motivation on the part of the OSA (Office of the State Auditor) in releasing this report, or more accurately, in the rhetoric and tactics used in releasing it. Especially given the timing of it (one day after announcing reelection).”
The report unleashed a wave of criticism in social media and an effort by social workers to fight back.
The former Local 509 spokesman, Jason Stephany, wrote on Twitter, “Flawed methodology leads to flawed results. Imagine the value of actually speaking with those on the front lines working to keep kids safe!”
O’Day — who said he would rather not comment on whether Bump’s role was political in nature — said that while Baker’s effort to hire more social workers has been helpful, the rigors of the job compel many new social workers to walk out almost as soon as they walk in.
“It’s difficult for people to hang around and be able to do that work,” he said.
State Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, said that while she knows the union has accused the auditor of mixing politics with child welfare, “I’m happy the auditor did what she did. It’s great that DCF is making changes. Legislatively, we supported the governor on that, to make sure they don’t have ridiculously high caseloads.”
Local 509 tweeted, “Any report about DCF that ignores front-line staff is, at best, an incomplete snapshot and, at worst, a play to grab headlines over working toward thoughtful, continued reforms.” That line was from the union’s DCF chapter president, Adriana Zwick, in a letter that appeared in The Boston Globe.
Worcester City Councilor-at-large Khrystian King said that while it is clear the governor has invested in DCF both through new hirings and policy changes, there is still room for improvement.
King is the regional vice president of the Local 509 offices of Central Massachusetts, which include two Worcester locations along with Leominster and Whitinsville. He was the author of a 2009 petition in which DCF social workers expressed no confidence in former Gov. Deval Patrick’s first DCF commissioner, Angelo McClain.
At the time, he said he had often had to contend with 25 or more cases at one time. The Child Welfare League of America recommends caseloads of 15 or fewer to ensure child safety.
“It appears as though caseloads at this time are lower than they were,” King said. “We were approaching caseloads of 30 and we’re not there right now. But it is hard to retain workers. In Central Massachusetts, caseloads are creeping up.”
“It’s trending down, definitely. Two years ago that ratio was probably 24 or 25. It has improved dramatically,” said Peter MacKinnon, president of Local 509. “But to just say we’re at 18, because the agency would like to say that, there are still workers who are at dangerous caseloads.”
Worcester’s District 1 Councilor, Sean Rose, said DCF has fared better under Baker than it did during Patrick’s eight years. He termed the auditor’s report irresponsible in that it does not take into account changes that Baker has made.
“Before Charlie Baker came into office Deval Patrick’s regime had really shifted a lot of the way the Department of Children and Families was structured,” said Rose, who manages the Connecticut division of the Justice Resource Institute, a nonprofit that provides mental health services to underserved populations.
“They cut out regional administrators and made the agency bigger, wider, longer. By nature of that, a lot of bad things started happening.”
Baker’s reforms followed a report by the Office of Child Advocate, which oversees DCF. The 2015 report came out less than three months into his term. It was the result of an anonymous survey of state social workers and their managers and the results were a devastating critique of the agency under Patrick administration leadership.
Editor’s note: Richard Nangle worked for DCF in 2007-2008 under Angelo McClain.