By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- The independent investigation into the Department of Children and Families and a mid-year spending bill filed last week by Gov. Deval Patrick dominated the discussion as the state's top three Democrats met privately for over an hour Monday afternoon in the governor's office.
Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the conversation centered mostly around the embattled Department of Children and Families, which has been under a spotlight since the December revelation that a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, Jeremiah Oliver, had gone missing on its watch.
Patrick met with the Child Welfare League of America Monday morning to discuss the scope of the group's review, and told the press after the meeting that the tragedy of losing Jeremiah Oliver presented an opportunity to "rethink and reinvigorate the department."
"I think he wanted to make sure all of the items we've expressed concern about were items they were going to consider as part of their investigation and I think, basically, hopefully the concerns each of us raised in there today are either presently a part of it, or will be," DeLeo said.
Murray said Patrick called the legislative leaders Sunday night, before his meeting with the Child Welfare League, to get their thoughts, and expects both she and the speaker will meet separately with the CWLA investigators to go over the scope of the review.
Murray said she agreed with Patrick's assessment and directive to the state's chief information officer to look at technological solutions that could equip social workers and their supervisors with real-time data and reports to use in the field.
"I think he makes a very good point that technology is changing and there's a use for technology here that might have prevented some of the things that happened, and might not of, but the fact that you can do real-time information back to a central office or supervisors, I think will be helpful," Murray said, adding, "A date and a time and a stamp proves that you were there, proves you saw the child."
The social worker and her two supervisors assigned to the Oliver family were fired after a DCF review found that home visits had been missed and supervisors covered up the lapse.
DeLeo said "it threw me through the roof" when he read in the Child Advocate's report on the Oliver case that nearly 20 percent of required monthly home visits statewide are missed. But both he and Murray said Patrick "cleared up" some of their concerns by explaining that in some of those cases social workers may have had other contact with the child or their families through school visits or other interactions.
DeLeo said he was also interested in seeing the Child Welfare League examine the different sets of issues faced by urban and rural DCF offices and the question of licensure for social workers, which is not currently required, and the types of licenses available for supervisors and other employees in the DCCF hierarchy.
DeLeo said he would prefer to see any reforms that need legislative approval combined into one bill, but did not rule out acting before the Child Welfare League completes its report around April.
"That could vary, I think. If there are certain things that can require immediate action and be helpful to us right away in the short term, then I don't think we'll be afraid to use it," he said.
An aide to DeLeo said the recommendations from Post Audit and Oversight Committee Chairman David Linsky, who led a hearing last week on DCF, will help determine the House's next steps.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey also said the House will take a look at the $126 million mid-year budget filed last week by Patrick that includes $45 million for hotel and motel shelters for the homeless and $2.8 million to start hiring additional social workers to reduce caseloads.
Dempsey said he anticipates being able to act on a version of the bill in February.
While Patrick tried to show leadership on the DCF controversy on Monday, a day before he is due to deliver in final annual address to the state, the Republican Party said it was too little, too late.
"After seven years in office, only now does Governor Patrick to turn his attention to the welfare of children in state custody. The serious job of governing our Commonwealth includes hard work and tough decisions, and a governor cannot afford to focus all his time on comparatively unimportant pet projects. For the sake of these children, we can only hope he makes them his top priority between now and the end of his term," MassGOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes said.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, also issued a statement saying he was hopeful that the Child Welfare League would be able to deliver the type of independent investigation that is necessary.
"At a minimum it must be as comprehensive as possible, be able to go where the facts take it, seek and use information from many sources, and be produced through a transparent, accountable process that is supported by sufficient resources to get the job done," Tarr said. "The facts surrounding the case of Jeremiah Oliver, and those that have surfaced as a result of that case, are deeply disturbing and they demand that we all work to address this situation in an effective manner. I appreciate today's update from Governor Patrick, and hope that he will continue to openly report on the progress of CWLA's efforts."