No systemic problems at DCF, Patrick says

Child advocate Garinger cites workplace tensions

Gov. Deval Patrick said Monday that the problems facing the Department of Children and Families in the wake of the Jeremiah Oliver case are “not systemic” and that the ongoing problems of high caseloads and staffing are not connected to the disappearance of the five-year-old Fitchburg boy.

 “We have a record here that shows that not only did the social worker and her supervisor fail to do what they were supposed to do, but they misrepresented it so that it couldn’t have been caught higher up,” said Patrick.  “There is a separate, serious issue about the level staffing at DCF; that’s not a new issue.”

Over the past two days, Patrick said that he reviewed the Oliver case with the state Child Advocate Gail Garinger; state Health and Human Service officials; representatives of SEIU Local 509, which represents state social workers; and legislators.

The governor has asked Child Welfare League of America officials, who are conducting an independent investigation at his request, to review how the department works, including “written and unwritten” policies, caseloads and caseload standards, and social workers’ licensing and qualifications.

To offer “some modest but immediate relief” for social workers, the state child welfare department plans to adjust regional assignment of cases between offices, the governor said.

Three officials from the Child Welfare League attended the news conference but did not offer any remarks. League spokeswoman Linda Spears briefly spoke to reporters after the press conference. She said little about the facts of the Oliver case but noted that it was “not the routine” for social workers to misrepresent cases.

Family members have not seen young Oliver since mid-September. With the child feared dead, the Worcester district attorney launched a homicide investigation. In December, police arrested the boy’s mother and her boyfriend on assault and battery charges in connection with his disappearance.  

After an internal investigation, the Department of Children and Families fired three employees who worked on the Oliver case in the Leominster office: the social worker assigned to the family; her supervisor, who falsified reports that home visits had been made when they hadn’t; and the area program manager who monitors supervisors.

Last week, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche spent several hours answering questions from House members during a hearing co-chaired by Rep. David Linksy, chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, and Rep. Kay Khan, the House chair of Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities

With a criminal investigation in progress, Roche provided rote answers to most of the questions about the Oliver case and boilerplate responses to other issues raised by lawmakers, such as excessive caseloads.

An angry Linsky repeatedly blasted Roche and department officials. “There is a systemic problem anytime that an agency loses track of a 5-year-old boy who is entrusted to the care and protection of that agency,” Linsky told reporters during a short break in the hearing.

But, according to Garinger, the state’s child advocate and a former Juvenile Court judge, workplace tensions between the social worker and her managers in the Leominster office cascaded into a “structure and accountability problem.”

The Office of the Child Advocate report released last week found that the social worker zeroed in on cases she believed were “in crisis,” while helping out her co-workers’ on their toughest cases as well. Her approach caused her to neglect her responsibilities to children she monitored.

The supervisor knew that the social worker was not monitoring the Oliver family, “made excuses” for her to her own manager; and then falsified her own reports about the case. A social worker only made two visits to the family last year. Department regulations require social workers to make regular visits, usually once a month. 

Speaking after the hearing last week, Garinger said the Oliver case should not be read as an overarching failure of the child welfare agency. “The dynamics of this configuration – social worker, supervisor, and manager – just wasn’t working,” Garinger told CommonWeath. The problems in Leominster “had more to do with personality factors that did not make for good working relationships.  

Before her assignment to the Oliver family, the fired social worker had problems with another case involving the abuse of a 2-year-old. During a review of that case, managers found “a number of missed opportunities” in her work involving the toddler. But they assigned her to the Oliver case nonetheless.

The fourth employee, an intake manager who failed to act on three abuse and neglect reports concerning the boy, received a three-day suspension without pay and a change in duties.

Right now, the boy’s disappearance can be attributed to “a few bad apples” in the Leominster office, according to Maureen Flatley, who works as an independent child welfare consultant and is not involved directly in the case. She said the commissioner should be commended for firing the workers involved.

“What I get concerned about in these cases is that everybody automatically dissolves into hysteria about ‘Oh, it’s a system failure, the system’s terrible,’ ” Flatley said. 

Nearly a decade ago in the Haleigh Poutre case, which involved the heinous abuse of a young girl abused by her adoptive mother, the department was at fault, according to Flaherty.

But the Oliver case is different, she said. “People are missing the point that this is a personnel issue,” she said.

North Central-area office officials in Leominster also implemented some practices that union officials argued were contrary to state law. The Worcester Telegram reported earlier this month that social workers complained to their union representative about a “viewing bodies” directive.

The area director, who also oversees the South Central office in Whitinsville, another location under scrutiny, required children, including older teenagers, to disrobe so social workers could inspect them for possible abuse-related injuries, even in cases were there was no report or evidence of mistreatment. Several social workers moved on rather than carry out the directive, and union officials are taking the matter up with the Office of the Child Advocate and others.

Patrick said it was “too soon to say” if the Department of Children and Families office in Leominster would see any other management changes.

SEIU officials told state lawmakers last week that 36 social workers in the Leominster office filed grievances with the union about excessive caseloads last May.  In December, 60 social workers, about two-thirds of the staff, filed grievances.

The union filed grievances for six consecutive months in 2013 for a social worker who handled the Oliver case. In May, then-acting commissioner Roche met North Central area office staff about their caseload concerns.

Asked after the State House hearing if workers had expressed concerns about specific managers in the North Central office, Peter MacKinnon, president of the Department of Children and Families chapter of SEIU Local 509, said that “staff was worried about the upper level managers from regional office or the central office not recognizing that there was a caseload problem.”

Social workers in the North Central area office in Leominster have some of the highest numbers of weighed caseloads, cases that require “intensive action,” in the Bay State.

Most individual social workers average 18 cases, which can add up to nearly 240 people, including children, family members, and additional contacts like health care providers. However, union officials have said that “hundreds” of social workers carry between 20 to 25 cases or more.

Patrick’s 2015 budget request for the department includes $9.2 million to help reduce caseloads to 15 per worker.

The Office of the Child Advocate report recommended that the department develop a plan to guide managers supervising workers with excessive caseloads.  However, the advocate noted that “excessive caseloads do not excuse the specific failures that prevented DCF from discovering Jeremiah Oliver’s disappearance.”

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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 Child Welfare League of America will provide periodic interim reviews on the Oliver case and the department’s policies before releasing a full report in “probably April,” Spears said.

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