By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- A new report from the Office of the Child Advocate found that the protective services office that handled the case of missing 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver had higher weighted caseloads than allowed under contract, but suggested the situation "provided a context rather than an excuse" for the failure of social workers assigned to the boy's family.
Oliver was last seen by relatives in September and is feared dead by police. His mother and her boyfriend are being held on bail, and have been charged with related crimes as investigators seek to learn more about what may have happened to the Fitchburg boy.
The Office of Child Advocate, an independent office overseeing child welfare agencies, conducted its investigation following an internal investigation by the Department of Children and Families that led to the firing of three employees, including the caseworker and her supervisors assigned to the Oliver family, for failing to make required home visits or follow up on reports of possible abuse.
The 11-page report produced by the Child Advocate repeats many of the findings already outlined by DCF in its investigation, but also delves deeper into the issue of caseloads being juggled by social workers across the state.
The report also revealed that the Oliver family had a history of child protection concerns in another state, which was not identified.
"The Oliver family had a history of serious child protective concerns in another state that did not follow the family to Massachusetts," the report said. "Although DCF investigators in Massachusetts were aware of this history and requested more information in 2011, the child protective agency in the other state did not respond. After Jeremiah's disappearance in 2013, the sister state agency sent selected records to DCF. It is critical that child protection records be made available to other states in appropriate circumstances, such as during investigations, so that social workers can assess the risk and safety of the child."
Gail Garinger, the Child Advocate, said in a statement with the report's release, "During the course of our investigation we have tried to understand how a five-year-old boy could have disappeared during a time when his family was involved with DCF. Everyone at DCF agrees that the most basic obligation of frontline social workers is to 'visit your children.' This is the cornerstone of protective work but did not happen with Jeremiah Oliver."
The report found that the North Central Area DCF office in Fitchburg is one of the busiest in the state with an average weighted caseload of 18.53 for the 12-month period ending in October 2013. That caseload exceeds the cap of 18 imposed since 1986 by the contract signed between DCF and the Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents social workers.
"The efforts by DCF management to increase staffing to help lower weighted caseload ratios appear to have been offset by the steady and significant increase in new cases and staff leaves," the report stated.
Last March, DCF signed a memorandum of understanding with the union to limit caseloads to 15 families or 28 children, with no more than 10 children in out-of-home foster placements, but the fiscal 2014 budget approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor did not include funding to implement the memo.
A manager from the Fitchburg office was quoted in the report saying, "I didn't think something like this could happen in our office with our systems. We have ridiculously high caseloads, but that's not what this is about."
Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday announced that his fiscal 2015 budget plan included $9.2 million to address the staffing needs necessary to implement the reduction in caseloads, and filed a separate mid-year budget request for $2.8 million to start the hiring process.
"It weighs on my mind and on my heart," Patrick said Wednesday about the ongoing problems at DCF.
The budget also proposes a $32.6 million increase in funding at the Department of Children and Families, and an increase of $185,000 for the Office of the Child Advocate, bringing its total budget to $500,000.
The union representing social workers applauded the investments, but even with the proposed budget increase the Children's League of Massachusetts bemoaned the fact that the proposed spending would still fall nearly $26 million short of restoring DCF to its pre-recession fiscal 2009 funding levels.
"We owe it to our children to dedicate the resources that will keep them safe and help them thrive," said Maria Zoe Mossaides, the chair of the Children's League of Massachusetts and executive director of Cambridge Family and Children's Service.
The Child Advocate's report said that DCF absorbed deep cuts after the recession hit in 2009, its budget reduced from a high of $836.5 million in fiscal 2009 to $737.1 in fiscal 2012. The administration and Legislature built the budget back up to $779 million in fiscal 2014, but the report said most of those increases have gone toward increased foster care rates and raises for unionized social workers and human service providers.
Between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2014, staffing across the state decreased by 47 managers and 124 social workers, making it more difficult to both keep up with cases and properly supervise frontline social workers.
Still, Garinger's report said that "excessive caseloads do not excuse the specific failures that prevented DCF from discovering Jeremiah Oliver's disappearance."
"As concerning as the staffing levels are, they don't explain what happened in the Oliver case because the social worker and or the supervisor mislead their superior about those home visits and check-ins," Patrick said Wednesday during a noon hour appearance on WGBH's "Ask the Governor."
Patrick added, "These are terrible times, and this isn't the only underfunded agency. I don't want to be misheard. This is one of the agencies that has some of the most delicate assignments, their mission is more complicated than others, but generally when the time comes to discuss increasing funding for agencies that deal with the most vulnerable, that gets lampooned in the general public."
House lawmakers on Thursday were holding an oversight hearing at the State House to attempt to get to the root of why the Oliver case was mismanaged, and Patrick has hired the Child Welfare League of America to conduct a full review of DCF's operations.