A group of state representatives is calling on Governor Deval Patrick to ask for the immediate resignation of the commissioner of the embattled state Department of Children and Families.
In an open letter released Thursday night, the 16 Republican and eight Democratic lawmakers said Patrick should ask for Olga I. Roche’s resignation because her agency has not worked to fix problems.
“The Department has repeatedly failed to protect children under their custody,” the letter read. “The welfare of children under DCF guardianship is seriously at risk with the aforementioned shortcomings of the Department’s leadership.”
Brendan Ryan, Patrick’s chief of staff, Thursday night referred to comments Patrick made earlier this week when Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker called for Roche to resign.
“At any given time, you can pick out stories of tragedy and try to run somebody out of office on account of it,” Patrick told the Globe Monday. “What I know is, she, working with the team, under those very difficult circumstances, is doing her very best.”
DCF has been under intense public scrutiny since early December, when the state agency acknowledged it had failed to properly keep tabs on 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg. Oliver has been missing since September and is feared dead. Several DCF workers were fired after the revelations—over the objections of their union, which has argued that the caseloads for state social workers is unmanageably high.
In addition, DCF came under further scrutiny after Janmarcos Pena, 9, was shot and killed, allegedly by his brother, in Mattapan on Feb. 7. DCF social workers had repeatedly visited the family.
Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCF, said that Roche has been “working around the clock” since taking her post in October to improve the agency.
“There’s broad support for the commissioner,” Loftus said. “She’s launched numerous actions to put the department on solid footing.”
Loftus acknowledged that “there are areas where people failed,” but said the criticisms lobbed by lawmakers in their letter were unfair.
The letter accuses DCF of failing to make required home visits, having too many unlicensed social workers, sending children to foster parents who have criminal histories, and allowing visitation by parents who sexually assaulted their children.
Loftus strongly disputed those points, saying that social workers visit children in settings other than the home, that state law prevents DCF from only hiring licensed workers, that 90 percent of foster parents with criminal histories are family members of the child with decades-old convictions, and that visits by parents accused of sexual assault are sometimes legally required but only conducted in supervised settings.
The letter to Patrick, coauthored by Republican representatives Ryan Fattman of Webster and Leah Cole of Peabody, was issued after the death of a 2-year-old Yarmouth boy who was born addicted to opiates.
“We had had these plans in the works for quite some time. ...This was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Horace Mello, an aide to Cole.
The Yarmouth boy had briefly stayed in a DCF foster home before being sent to live with relatives by a judge. DCF has said it opposed removing the boy from the foster home.
Supporters of Roche, including Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, argue that a change in leadership would do nothing to move DCF forward.
“Changing Commissioners at this point would not bring the Commonwealth any closer to achieving DCF’s primary responsibility of protecting children,” Bradley wrote in a statement Thursday.
One of the few Democrats to sign the letter, Jonathan Zlotnik of Gardner, said problems at the agency started at the top.
“It seems now that the organization has had a problem with management,” he said in an interview. “We need to bring in a fresh pair of eyes.”