Report: DCF needs to reduce caseloads to care for kids

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families needs to lower caseloads and upgrade its technology to adequately supervise the 36,000 children under its watch, according to an initial assessment from the Child Welfare League of America.

The Washington, D.C., trade group, which was hired by the Patrick administration in January to review the agency’s operations, also recommended increased monitoring of foster families, more action to find children who have run away from foster families, and increased medical screenings for children entering foster care.

“The safety and security of children — especially those entrusted to the supervision or care of the state child welfare agency — are of vital concern to the citizens of the Commonwealth,” the interim report said. “While far too many jurisdictions are facing failures in their ability to keep a child safe, these failures cannot become acceptable.”

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The interim report did not grade the agency’s overall management and said it would be “wise” to keep the current leadership intact while the group finishes the review.

“Experience has shown, that in many instances the lack of consistent leadership, and the challenges of leadership transition may further compromise the challenges facing the agency,” the report said.

The Patrick administration hired the Child Welfare League after the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver last year from a family that was under DCF’s watch because of allegations of abuse and neglect. The agency later acknowledged that caseworkers hadn’t visited the home for months and the boy is now feared dead.

Some of the recommendations in the report mirror a push by the Patrick administration and union representatives for increased funding from the Legislature to hire more caseworkers and upgrade the agency’s technology to keep better tabs on children.

Union leaders have repeatedly complained that workers have sky-high caseloads, making it difficult to track children closely. And Patrick has proposed adding funding for 177 positions in the 2015 budget to meet the caseload goals it promised the union. The agency said it has already hired 90 new social workers since the beginning of the year.

DCF wouldn’t say how much it is paying for the outside assessment, but said the organization has the flexibility to do a comprehensive review of the agency’s policies and procedures. “It’s a broad review,” said Alec Loftus, a DCF spokesman.

The agency also revealed for the first time Thursday that it is falling short of its policy of conducting a medical screening for every child within seven days and doing a more comprehensive exam within 30 days. Currently, only 77 percent have had a medical exam within 30 days (though 90 percent had at least some medical care during that window).

State Senator Michael Barrett, Democrat of Lexington, who supports more funding for DCF, welcomed the recommendation for more staff. “I don’t think you crack this nut unless you end the isolation of some very demoralized case workers with more staff,” Barrett said.

Barrett said he also agreed with the recommendation to keep the existing management in place until a new governor takes over, because it would be difficult to recruit anyone in the interim. “You don’t force out leadership in the last 10 months of an eight-year term,” Barrett said. “You don’t leave the agency rudderless.”

Representative David Linsky, Democrat of Natick, said he thought the report was a “start,” but also said he hopes the final version goes much further.

“It’s a very preliminary report,” said Linsky, chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which has been holding hearings on DCF’s operations. “I am hopeful they can delve more into how DCF can change the culture within DCF.”

“Whether it’s this management team or another management team, someone needs to step up and take charge and say, ‘We recognize that this is a problem.’ ”

The group conducting the review is a national association of child welfare agencies, including DCF, that regularly lobbies Washington for federal funding, promotes best practices in the industry, and has close ties to DCF.

Last month, the League’s vice chairwoman was quoted in a Patrick administration news release praising DCF commissioner Olga Roche after critics called on her to resign.

“Commissioner Olga Roche understands child welfare practice and policy from first-hand experience,” said Julie Sweeney Springwater, the vice chairwoman of the group, who is also director of the New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners and Directors, another membership group that includes DCF.

DCF has long faced criticism, however, for not doing enough to protect children. It is one of the agencies in several states that was sued by Children's Rights, a New York advocacy group, that wants the court to force the state to do more. And DCF ranks far worse than most states in a number of statistics compiled by the federal government on child welfare agencies, including the number of kids who are visited monthly by case workers.

Last month, the Globe reported that there are many children under DCF’s watch who are missing on any given day — including 134 foster kids listed as runaways on Feb. 2 — despite assurances by Roche that no other children were unaccounted for or in danger like Oliver.

The agency later said Roche wasn’t talking about runaways or Marlon Devine Santos, a five-month-old who disappeared from foster care in 1998 and is still considered missing by police.