Report: DCF made errors but not to blame in child’s death

National organization says state must beef up budget to drastically reduce caseloads

Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz and Child Welfare League’s Linda Spears announce DCF review findings.

A long-awaited report from the Child Welfare League of America issued Wednesday found that the Department of Children and Families could not have prevented the death of Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg.

The national child welfare organization acknowledged that there was “significant evidence that some staff committed a number of errors” in the handling of the case, but that the agency was not ultimately responsible for the boy’s death.

“We don’t know what happened on the day… or at the time of his death, we don’t know who was around,” said Linda Spears, the organization’s vice president for corporate communications and development. “A once-a-month visit is not a 24-hour a-day parent.”

Jeremiah Oliver disappeared last September, but wasn’t reported missing until December. His body was found by the side of a road in Sterling in April.

With caseloads at a 20-year high, Spears blasted DCF for a mish-mash of policies that hamper how social workers do their jobs in Massachusetts. Most social workers are carrying nearly 20 cases which can translate into hundreds of family, medical, legal and school contacts for each individual worker.

Spears said, there is a “huge amount” of inconsistency in how cases are handled by DCF and its area offices. “In many instances, DCF policies are not just out of date, they’re grossly out of date,” she said. Staff burnout is a major concern. The League suggested that the department make a concerted effort to allow social workers to attend regular training programs which would help alleviate turnover.

In response to a question about whether the League blamed Olga Roche, the former DCF head for the agency’s problems, Spears said that group did not focus on individuals.

Spears noted that child welfare agency issues nationwide were largely systemic and beyond the ability of one individual to change. “While I understand people have to [fire commissioners] and I understand that commissioners decide [to resign], if every time child welfare were to accept the resignation of a commissioner based on the problems that that agency has…we’re looking at the wrong solution.”

The group indicated that that the agency’s risk and safety measures needed to be revamped. Social workers who make home visits should provide an assessment of the risks facing a family after every visit. DCF workers involved in the Oliver case either failed to visit the family or provided inaccurate or misleading information about the family’s status.

The department’s outmoded technology came in for special scrutiny. Social workers have long complained about the inability to work remotely during downtime in the field and to access real time information about families.

In June, instead of cell phones the agency originally planned to distribute, DCF will give out 2,000 computer tablets to frontline social workers to facilitate note-taking and other tasks. The department is also overhauling its FamilyNet database which dates from the late 1990s.

As part of its investigation, League officials convened a half a dozen focus groups made up of nearly 200 people, including youth in DCF care, biological, foster, and adoptive parents, and public and private social services providers. They also surveyed department staff and fielded emails and phone calls.

Interim DCF commissioner Erin Deveney also announced the creation of a “kitchen cabinet” to monitor the agency. The panel will consist of child welfare experts advocates and community leaders and policymakers to improve the department’s ties to local communities and better monitor family networks.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

The League stressed that DCF’s problems will require additional resources beyond current fiscal year 2015 budget proposals. But even as he outlined progress toward an “ultimate goal” of a 15-caseload maximum for social workers, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said that the department did not yet have a final figure on how much it would cost Massachusetts to get there or pay for the League’s other recommendations.

SIEU Local 509, the social workers union, criticized the lack of a budget blueprint. “While our elected leaders have taken initial steps to address some of the longstanding issues identified in this report, the Child Welfare League clearly states that none of the 2015 budget proposals provide sufficient funding to protect children and support families,” the union said in a statement. “Until these critical investments are made, DCF will be unable to address the worsening caseload crisis, let alone commit to large-scale, systemic reform.”