Baker owns the DCF mess

There’s no set timetable for when the other guy’s problems become your baggage but one thing is certain: Gov. Charlie Baker now owns the mess that is the Department of Children and Families and finger-pointing at the administration that left eight months ago isn’t going to cut it.

The latest problems for the beleaguered DCF come as two foster children were removed from a home in Auburn over the weekend after police responded to a “breathing problem. A two-year-old girl died and a 22-month-old child is in critical condition. According to reports, police had been called to the homes of the foster mother more than 60 times since 2004, but DCF officials say they were unaware of those incidents.

The Auburn case comes in the wake of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma last month after his father, who was awarded custody despite a history of violence and mental illness, allegedly beat and starved him and forced him to clean floors with bleach, inhaling the toxic fumes. Social workers from DCF had been monitoring that situation since February and had visited the child two weeks before he went into the coma, but did not remove him despite the boy’s scrawny appearance from being malnourished.

At a press conference Monday, Baker, who during his campaign last year highlighted previous tragedies under then governor Deval Patrick and accused him of mismanagement, decried the situations and vowed to increase funding for the agency, hire more social workers, and investigate how the two incidents could have gotten to this point. He said it will be “all hands on deck” until he rights the listing child protection ship.

“I’m not going to be satisfied until we get to the point where this sort of thing doesn’t happen. Period,” said Baker. “This has my highest priority.”

Given his focus on it during the campaign, including a rough ad from supporters against Martha Coakley that he refused to disavow, one has to wonder why it’s a priority in August but wasn’t a priority in January. Back then, Baker hired national child advocate Linda Spears, who reviewed DCF for the Patrick administration and wrote a scathing report with recommendations to overhaul the agency.

In March, Spears acknowledged the 3 percent increase in funding from Baker did little more than maintain the current workforce at DCF, which her report said was already overwhelmed with cases. There was no money for any of her other recommendations, such as hiring pediatric nurses for every office.

But the Globe‘s Joan Vennochi writes that tragedy transcends political and ideological boundaries. She points out that for all his campaign rhetoric, Baker is learning the uncomfortable truth about social welfare agencies.

“Children will suffer and some will die, no matter who’s in charge of protecting them,” she writes. “A better-managed system can do a better job of monitoring a child’s safety after such decisions are made. But it can’t eliminate all the risk that goes with them.”

Baker’s job is going to get harder. The head of the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, the watchdog for DCF, announced she is stepping down in September. The governor’s allies on Beacon Hill and in the media are taking him to task for looking too much like Patrick in dealing with the tragedies.

“Baker’s response is not just underwhelming – he appears to have embraced former Gov. Deval Patrick’s DCF playbook of delay and downplay,” writes the Herald‘s Hillary Chabot, who covered the State House for the paper during Patrick’s tenure.

In her interview with the Globe shortly after she took over, Spears, the DCF chief, said there is definitely a different vantage point on the inside looking in.

“Writing a report is a whole different thing from trying to get it done,” she said in a prescient observation. “It’s a lot easier to tell than do.”




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