By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday said he was looking for "actionable" recommendations from the Child Welfare League of America to improve the performance of the Department of Children and Families, suggesting a tragedy has facilitated a "great opportunity" to ensure children are protected.
Patrick on Monday morning met with the independent consultant conducting a review of the Department of Children and Families before addressing the media about his goals for reforming the child protection agency in the wake of the disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy while under the department's oversight.
Patrick seemed to acknowledge broader problems across the embattled agency, while saying "nothing can excuse" the actions of the social worker and her supervisors assigned to the Oliver family, who have been fired after allegedly failing to properly oversee the case.
"I think we have a great opportunity presented, ironically, by this terrible tragedy to rethink and reinvigorate the department and I want to ensure the public that that is just what we intend to do," Patrick said.
The governor said the Child Welfare League of America will finish its review this spring, likely by April so that there is time for legislative action if needed, and has been directed to provide periodic updates that will be released to the public starting next month.
In the meantime, Patrick said he has ordered a reconfiguration of the territories covered by each DCF office to smooth caseloads and temporarily relieve pressure on overburdened social workers, and has asked the state's new chief information officer to develop a technology plan that will equip social workers will "real-time data" that they can use to make decisions about family and child protection
"I have emphasized that we need actionable recommendations, not bureaucratic ones. The point is not more paperwork, it's getting more social work," Patrick said.
He also asked the CWLA to evaluate "written and unwritten" policies at the agency, current caseloads, the licensing and general qualifications of social workers, and the oversight of outside vendors.
Holding a press conference to describe some of the work already underway and previously announced, Patrick said he wanted the Child Welfare League to look at how best to "strike the right balance between protecting children and keeping families intact," which has previously been singled out by Attorney General Martha Coakley as an inherent tension in the mission of DCF. In many cases, Patrick said, it may be a "false choice" between the two goals, and that keeping the family together might be best for the child.
Regardless of the recommendations of the independent consultant, Patrick said he has been struck by the lack of up-to-date information available to social workers. Home visit reports are filed bi-weekly and reported out each month, meaning the reports are already out of date when they reach the hands of caseworkers, according to the governor.
"It has to be harder to supervise field workers making time-sensitive judgments without real-time data, and harder to field staff to improve their own productivity without it as well," Patrick said. "There is almost certainly a technological fix here, a solution to this, and I think it would be worthwhile for us to have a tool that provides real-time information no matter what the recommendations the Children Welfare League ultimately tell us."
Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chair of the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said he supports a move to use technology to provide real-time information to caseworkers, but offered a note of caution given his experience as an information technology consultant.
"The administration has been having a lot of difficulty with computer and IT projects lately. We would like any new system put into place at DCF for real-time reporting to work well," Barrett said. "These frontline social workers are going to need a lot of support as they move to real-time reporting, or we're just setting ourselves up for the next debacle."
Patrick held up the example of Department of Environmental Protection inspectors, who enter on-site inspection reports using mobile tablets. Barrett said the implementation of a similar system at DCF will require training and a culture change.
Linda Spears, vice president of policy, programs and public affairs at the CWLA, said the organization has three people assigned to the Massachusetts review, and has begun interviewing DCF employees and reviewing written material, but had not yet formed any preliminary assessment.
"We're way, way early for that," said Spears, who once worked for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services more than two decades ago. Asked specifically about the Oliver case, Spears said, "It's extraordinarily disturbing. The good news is it doesn't happen every day, but it happens often enough."
In his fiscal 2015 budget proposal and a mid-year spending bill for this year, Patrick set aside $12 million to beginning hiring additional social workers to reduce caseloads. He called staffing levels a "problem" and "a separate and serious" issue at DCF that has been on the radar of administrators for some time, but one that cannot be used as an excuse for the failures in the Oliver case.
He also said he was concerned about data in the Child Advocate's report released last week that showed how only 82.5 percent of required home visits are made by social workers, but doesn't know whether that statistic should be alarming given the fact that social workers have other points of contact with families under their supervision.
"We need people who actually know what they're doing to tell us what to make of the data that we have, or in fact, whether we're collecting the right data," Patrick said.
Jason Stephany, communications director for the S.E.I.U. Local 509, said the union is committed to ensuring that all social workers are qualified for their positions. Even though a third of state social workers are not licensed, he said most have bachelor's or master's degrees, and Patrick said DCF makes it clear that those without licenses are unlikely to get promoted to a supervisory position as a "workaround" to a state law that prohibits licensing from being considered in hiring decisions.
Social worker qualifications are another area the governor has asked the Child Welfare League to review.