DCF and the upskirting standard

Jawbones rattled to the floor across the Commonwealth last week when state lawmakers likely set a legislative speed record with a new law that criminalized upskirting.

Can Beacon Hill act as fast when it comes to child welfare?

Critics of the Department of Children and Families, especially the ones calling for the resignation of Commissioner Olga Roche, have quieted down since Child Welfare League of America issued its preliminary report on DCF in the wake of the Jeremiah Oliver case.  The League’s investigators shushed the step-down-now chorus with one simple sentence,  “While this study is pending, stability [in the agency’s leadership] is wise.”

Their initial findings confirm what Massachusetts child welfare advocates have been saying for years: The department needs more caseworkers handling fewer cases, better technology tools for its employees, and more effective screening mechanisms for children entering foster care-for starters.

Perhaps, as a result, the news media is slowly turning from headline-grabbing comments about Roche to more constructive discussions of the issues and what should happen next.

In Wednesday’s Boston Globe, columnist Farah Stockman has a thoughtful take on the latest DCF crisis. She explores how Roche rose in the ranks from front-line social worker confronting her share of heinous cases to the top slot at the agency.

Stockman raises questions about the hiring of one of Roche’s friends who became the program supervisor at the agency’s troubled North Central office that monitored the Oliver family.

But Stockman also notes, “What we have never seen is real acknowledgment of how hard this work really is – or consistent political will to hire enough social workers to do it right.”

She goes on to pose a key question: “If we expect such perfection from them, shouldn’t we pay them more, and hire more of them? Each blue ribbon commission adds more tasks, more procedures, but never more resources to get the job done.”

As for the Legislature, newspapers like the Lowell Sun have shifted their focus to the reformers. The Sun reported that Rep. Shelia Harrington, a Groton Republican, proposed a bill that would mandate that the courts consider the “best interests of the child” before trying to keep the family together, the current legal standard. The proposal would give more weight to the parent’s ability to provide for the child’s material and emotional well-being.  Harrington told the paper that Oliver, the Fitchburg child whose disappearance led to the current DCF controversy, would probably have been better off in a different placement rather staying with his family.

But changing a legal standard does not require millions of dollars. The Child Welfare League of America has now given lawmakers fair warning that DCF has two major issues, caseload management and technology, dollar-driven problems that have been highlighted dozens of times in the past. They are ones that firing a commissioner or reshuffling groups of social workers from one office to another will not solve.

The League’s investigators can fill in the details, but what needs to happen at DCF is not a mystery. Beacon Hill set a new standard in dealing with subway perverts armed with smartphones. What bears watching is whether state lawmakers are willing to apply the upskirting standard in translating outrage into action when it comes to the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children.

–GABRIELLE GURLEY

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The Globe looks at the scourge of heroin addiction in Taunton, which has become ground-zero  in the state’s opiate epidemic.

Middleborough town retirees want the town to pick up more of the cost of their health insurance.

A colleague urges Lowell City Councilor John Leahy to recuse himself from the city manager selection process because his brother-in-law is among the finalists, the Sun reports.

Abington voters are being asked to approve proposed new laws governing pawn shops to help police track down stolen goods and investigate crimes more quickly.

Former Boston city councilor Rob Consalvo wrote a letter of support for a Roxbury medical marijuana dispensary days after his cousin landed a construction contract from the dispensary. Consalvo says he didn’t know his cousin was working at the facility.

Fitchburg restarts its search for a new police chief.

CASINOS

A new WBUR/MassINC poll shows public support for casinos in Massachusetts falling below the 50-percent mark.

New Bedford officials, who are negotiating a host agreement for a proposed waterfront casino, have asked the state Gaming Commission for an extension of the deadline for applications for licenses in the Southeast Region.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission throws up a possible roadblock to Revere‘s proposed Mohegan Sun casino, expressing concern about the planned demolition of the barns at Suffolk Downs. CommonWealth detailed complaints about the agency — developers and state bureaucrats alike pan it as a black box — in this Winter 2012 piece.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Massachusetts and other states come up with a way to sidestep new federal rules limiting food stamp benefits, the Associated Press reports. In Washington, Republicans push back against the moves.

ELECTIONS

State Republicans are rallying around Charlie Baker and may be able to keep his Tea Party rival off the September primary ballot, reports the Globe.

Scott Brown refuses to sign the “People’s Pledge” in his race against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, the Eagle-Tribune reports. Meanwhile, Brown’s Massachusetts nemesis, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, says she raised $40,000 for Shaheen over the weekend.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Boston University professor Michael Corgan urges General Electric and other defense contractors to focus on high technology as the military pares back spending, the Item reports.

The Wall Street Journal casts doubt on the economic benefits of publicly subsidized convention center hotels in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

EDUCATION

A new study dispels the myth that today’s students are toiling for hours on end with homework, finding the burden on students has remained “remarkably stable” for the past 30 years, with most spending an hour or less on homework assignments.

Bedford is dealing with a rash of anti-Semitic incidents involving elementary schoolchildren.

HEALTH CARE

The Health Policy Commission appears to be the only independent agency of its kind in the country that reviews hospital mergers, Governing reports.

TRANSPORTATION

The National Review rounds up what it considers the nine wildest theories on the missing Malaysian airliner, including the suggestion from the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee that it was landed in a remote airfield and is being loaded with explosives to be used in an attack. Wire has one theory, offered by a pilot with 20 years of experience, that seems considerably less wild.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Higher electricity prices last year took $3 billion more out of the New England economy last year than in 2012, CommonWealth reports.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A federal judge in Boston has ordered a new sentencing hearing for next February for convicted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson, a delay that has upset families of the victims already incensed by a judge’s decision to void his first death sentence.

Oklahoma delays two executions because it runs out of the drug used for lethal injections, Time reports.

ARTS/CULTURE

Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum goes high tech.

MEDIA

The Washington Post offers free digital access to the paper to subscribers to a handful of local newspapers around the country, including the Minneapolis Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, and the Toledo Blade.

The New Republic ‘s Leon Wieseltier offers a critique of Nate Silver and data-driven journalism — and a defense of “bullshit.” New York magazine asks why media observers expect Silver to single-handedly save journalism: “The more interesting question is why – even accounting for the hype needed to launch a for-profit product – hopes for these projects, internally and externally, have been so high, why their announcements have to take the form of manifestos.”

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.

WHEN ADULTS RUN GAMES

A Norfolk Superior Court judge indicated he was reluctant to step into a feud between Braintree parents in rival youth baseball leagues in a battle that threatens to scuttle the season for all the kids.