^ answering questions from legislators justifiably angry : DCF Commissioner Olga Roche

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The unfortunate and wholly inexcusable matter of 5-year old Jeremiah Oliver — a Fitchburg child under Department of Families and Children monitoring, whose disappearance was not known by the department for months because of missed visits — has now made the DCF a major issue in this year’s Governor campaign. In which case his plight — no good outcome is expected — will have at least some good consequences.

Right now, however, the DCF and its Commissioner, Olga Roche, are on the very hot seat of inflamed public scruitiny. How could this have happened ? The very first sentence at the DCF’s website says “The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is the Massachusetts state agency charged with the responsibility of protecting children from child abuse and neglect.” How can an agency  set up to prevent neglect do neglect ?

But it did. as we all now know, the social worker whose caseload included Jeremiah Oliver missed several obligatory house visits. She also noted the fact in the ccase record. Her supervisors knew, or were charged with knowing, that Jeremiah Oliver was not receiving the monitoring that DCF must give to children in its work-load.

Of course for Massachusetts people with long memory, case neglect practically defines the agency. We used to joke about news stories so cliched — “dog bites man” stories — they made you laugh. Well, “Children under DCF care abused in home, parents arrested” was such a story. It happened all the time. The DCF has probably undergone more system reviews and policy changes than the entire rest of state government combined; yet here we are, once again, faced with the trope headline : “DCF worker missed visits, child is missing.”

So yes, DCF failure is a big issue in the Governor race. It should be. Other state departments have come under criticism, for good reason, in the past two years. Who can forget the Department of Public Safety hiring, as a Road safety supervisor, a political appointee with an egregiously bad driving record including a DUI ? The Department of Public welfare was also found lax in overseeing the state’s EBT program — not that EBT fraud was widespread (the fraud rate was quite minor, in fact) but that the Department’s procedures for monitoring EBT cards was lax enough to enable fraud to occur. Of course the patronage hire was something that occurs in every administration. People aren’t perfect. Even elected officials aren’t flawless. As for the EBT procedures situation, agency regulations aren’t perfect either and require adjustment to actual practice. Which takes time. But the events at DCF occurred in an administration already shown to be not running smoothly. This time, big change is needed. Kids’ well-being is at stake.

The DCF is set up pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws c. 119, the language of which you can read in this link : https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXVII/Chapter119 . It is helpful to read the mission assigned. The DCF also has its own regulations and procedures, a link to which you can follow here : http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/laws-regs/dcf/regulations-and-policies.html . All the major candidates for Governor are likely now reading these links and devising their response to the Jeremiah Oliver neglect event from what the law and regulations state. Yet these are not the entire story. What did not happen in the DCF Fitchburg office is not merely a matter of egregious failure. it’s also a budget matter. As a recent story in the Boson Globe wrote, “As the department’s lapses have come under scrutiny, its budget has become a focal point. In the five years prior to Jeremiah’s disappearance, the department sustained deep cuts. This week, Governor Deval Patrick proposed restoring some of that funding, but even his proposal would leave the agency with less than it had in 2008, child advocates said.”

So it’s a budget matter ! Imagine that. Who’d have guessed ?

In the Globe story we learn that the DCF’s social worker caseloads have increased from 15 to an average of 19 — this despite a contract — DCF’s social workers are represented by the SEIU — limiting caseloads to 15 per worker. With larger caseloads come increased monitoring, but the money hasn’t been there to budget it. The truth is that we cannot have effective state government if we do not pay for it. State work isn’t charity. State workers aren’t volunteers. Even the DCF workers who neglected Jeremiah Oliver — and were fired for neglecting him — can’t readily work an increased case load without added compensation. Nor should they be asked to do so. The answer is to hire additional case workers, so that none has to work 15 cases at a time, but of course without budget funds the DCF can’t hire the added workers.

The State budget is failing on many fronts. Look at how difficult it was for Massachusetts to enact an $ 800 million transportation bill that included tax increases — being fought now by referendum — without which our public transit and roads can barely be repaired, much less upgraded. Large increases will be needed if our state is to meet its educational reform goals, revise the justice and sentencing system, enable undocumented immigrants, provide for a homeless population that has more than doubled since 2008, add funds to EBT because more families now need it, and, yes, give the DCF what it needs for its increased caseloads.

Is it too rhetorical for me to say that the real neglect story here isn’t the DCF — though neglect at the DCF there surely was and is — but state Government itself ? Our State right now is a neglect adventure. We have given the State several vital communal missions but not the funds to carry them out. The neglect lies with us.

It will be interesting to see what answers Steve Grossman, Charlie baker, Juliette Kayyem, Martha Coakley, and Don Berwick have for the neglect in us. With Democratic caucuses beginning as early as next week — and on the Republican side already under way — we will soon be hearing. I hope.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

UPDATE Jan 27 2014 at 9.45 AM : The Boston Globe reports that Governor Patrick will make a pubic address today on the “systemic” failure of DCF workers to do all of their mandated monthly visits to children in their caseloads. He will, I suppose, also address that these expanded caseloads violate the Social Worker contract; and will also likely mention that his FY 2015 state budget adds $ 9 million for the hiring of additional social workers. — MF