Commissioner discusses reforms made after tragedy
LEGISLATIVE BUDGET HEARINGS are typically dry discussions of line items and government programs. On Tuesday, however, lawmakers were reminded in stark terms of the life-or-death decisions involved in determining how state dollars are spent and how individual agencies function.
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Linda Spears took the stand virtually before the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committees less than a week after a scathing report detailed her agency’s failings that led to the death of Fall River teenager David Almond, allegedly as a result of abuse and neglect by his father and his father’s girlfriend, despite the family being under DCF supervision.
Spears used her appearance to discuss not only her agency’s budget request, but how the agency was implementing reforms. She opened her testimony by referring to Almond’s death. “I want to assure you at every turn that we take this very seriously at the department and that we are committed and share your commitment and your conviction that every child deserves to live in a home that’s safe and free from harm,” Spears said.
Spears reiterated, as she has said previously, that DCF replaced the Fall River area office management team in February. Over the last six weeks, she said, “they are doing a tremendous amount of work to help stabilize and take the office forward.”
Among other reforms instituted because of the case, DCF is hiring a disability services director. It is also developing protocols to ensure that complex cases are addressed through clinical review team meetings, which will let a team of social workers consider specific facts that impact a case, like mental health or substance use issues. DCF is instituting a review process for all cases involving a child’s reunification with their family, with the addition of a new tool that will be used to assess child safety risks before reunification. And the agency is looking for ways to ensure that service providers who work with the family can have their voices heard in DCF decision-making. In Almond’s case, providers who worked with him expressed concern that DCF was moving too fast in returning Almond to his father’s custody.
“For me, it’s a matter of doubling down on some things we’ve already done and increasing quality assurance activity to make sure we’re looking randomly at more cases on a regular basis,” Spears said.
Spears also discussed the dynamics created by the pandemic, which led to a situation where Almond was never seen in person by a social worker, only through virtual visits, from the time he returned to his father’s house in March 2020 until his death in October. Spears said DCF has operated throughout the pandemic with guidance from the federal government and a Department of Public Health epidemiologist assigned to the agency.
Emergency responses to allegations of abuse and neglect have always been made in person. Virtual visits in non-emergency cases transitioned to a mix of in-person and virtual visits in late summer, once personal protective equipment became more widely available. Home visits have continued to be evenly divided since then, with in-person visits one month and virtual visits the next. Spears said social workers and managers get a weekly report each week outlining which children need to be seen and asking them to use a tool that assesses a child’s risk in determining whether a visit can be done virtually or not.
Spears said the agency is in the process of moving away from virtual home visits now that the COVID vaccine is more widely available and rates of transmission are lower than in the fall and winter. Going forward, she said videoconferencing may be used to supplement, but not replace, visits. “We did not ever anticipate a 50:50 schedule would be a permanent stance for the department,” Spears said.
Rep. Natalie Blais, a Sunderland Democrat, said while Almond’s death took place in the context of the pandemic, that cannot be used as an excuse for the tragedy. “We want to be careful we don’t allow the pandemic to be used as a reason,” she said.
Spears agreed. She said the lack of a safety net and the lack of visibility in the community complicated the case. But, Spears said, “At the root here is some bad decision-making.”