DCF caseworkers are set up ‘to fail,’ says Child Advocate

Poor management and too many cases per worker harm the department’s quality of work.

A graph showing the increase in “screened-in’’ cases per DCF caseworker over the years.
A graph showing the increase in “screened-in’’ cases per DCF caseworker over the years. –OCA Review of DCF Management

The Department of Children and Families’ caseworkers don’t have enough management to support then, setting up the field workers “to fail,’’ the state’s official Child Advocate reported Wednesday.

The harsh assessment came in the preliminary findings by The Ripples Group, an outside consultant hired by the Child Advocate’s office to examine the DCF’s operations. In the findings, the Child Advocate’s office stated that “the management system at DCF is not capable of ensuring that DCF fulfills its mission consistently.’’

The department serves over 90,000 clients in Massachusetts, with 8,000 children in DCF custody. A recent annual survey found that 184 children were abused or neglected while in DCF care last year, though the report issued Wednesday said that the survey showed improvements in 2015, with rates of physical abuse and the recurrence of maltreatment down from previous years.

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The Child Advocate said most of these improvements are the result of the DCF’s “committed, dedicated workforce and experienced, hard-working managers.’’

Still, the Child Advocate found that the management system is unable to support caseworkers. Caseloads are too high per caseworker—there were 22.7 “screened-in’’ cases per caseworker last year—which overwhelms the workforce and can reduce the quality of work.

When a report alleging abuse or neglect of a child is filed with DCF, an initial decision is make whether to “screen in’’ the case for a response. Caseloads have been increasing, according to the report, with screened-in cases per caseworker growing 35 percent since 2011.

The increase may be in part to the state’s current opioid crisis, but the report also notes that changes to DCF policy have contributed to higher intake rates. One of these changes occurred in January 2014, when DCF started investigating any report concerning a child five-years-old or younger with family risk factors that include young parents, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, or unresolved childhood trauma.

The Massachusetts legislature increased DCF’s budget for caseworkers in response to these policy changes, gaining 250 caseworkers since 2013. For next year’s budget, an addition $18 million had been allotted for more hires.

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“The current situation sets up the workforce to fail as they cannot handle the volume of cases they are assigned without sacrificing great quality,’’ the Child Advocate reported. “Therefore, it is not surprising that employee morale is low and the workforce speaks openly about stress and trauma, as illustrated by one caseworker commenting in a focus group, ‘I have been here for 38 years but it has never been this bad.’’’

Budget cuts have sacrificed DCF management and administrative capacity as a means of preserving these “frontline’’ employees. From 2008 to 2015, the ratio of caseworkers to managers rose from below 10 to above 14. The problem got worse in 2015 when 17 percent of managers took a buyout.

The report also outlined that there’s no agenda to improve DCF, meaning that managerial decision-making becomes reactionary. There are no clear expectations for how to manage crises within DCF, according to the report.

The Ripples Group will continue to conduct additional background recordkeeping audits and analyze more human resource data from DCF. A draft final report to the Office of the Child Advocate and a final report to the Legislature are due November 2, 2015.

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