By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- House Speaker Robert DeLeo does not anticipate involving himself in the gubernatorial primary next year, and is looking forward more immediately to a comprehensive review of the Department of Children and Families, changes to the state's unemployment insurance and minimum wage laws, and eventually an economic development bill.
"The UI and the minimum wage I'm looking to do as a separate piece of legislation hopefully sooner than the economic development piece," DeLeo said Thursday, after raising money for the Salvation Army in Downtown Crossing.
As state officials seek answers about how the system may have failed 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, of Fitchburg, who has been missing since September and is feared to have been murdered, DeLeo said he wanted a comprehensive review of the Department of Children and Families, the state agency charged with protecting children from child abuse and neglect.
"We have to look at that agency as a whole and see exactly what is going on. Again, is that just an isolated incident, or is there more of a systemic problem than we realize there, and if so then we've got to correct it," DeLeo told two reporters. He said, "I can't say right now what the issues are.
DeLeo said he had spoken to House Post Audit and Oversight Committee Chairman David Linsky and Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee Co-Chairwoman Kay Khan, asking them to launch a "joint committee of an investigation."
"A job wasn't done. I want to get to the bottom of it. See was that an isolated incident or is there more of this than we know," DeLeo said.
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche announced the firings of two workers on Tuesday, detailing how the caseworker assigned to the young boy's family failed to perform the requisite home visits and the supervisor did not enforce department policy. Roche called it a "deeply concerning case of abuse and neglect" and said there had been "a serious failure" by social worker and supervisor assigned to the family, with all cases assigned to that social worker and supervisor being reviewed.
The union representing the fired social worker - SEIU Local 509 - blasted back at Roche on Tuesday, suggesting she has done little to address caseloads piled on DCF workers that "have long stood at crisis levels" and asserting that she was "more interested in finger-pointing than accepting responsibility for yet another tragedy on her watch."
On Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick said he was "very disappointed" by the union's response, and said there are no excuses for the social worker's behavior.
"I'm very sympathetic to the caseload of social workers, but a social worker who has a responsibility like this one in this case to make regular, monthly, eyes-on visits, who doesn't do it, and doesn't say that the reason it isn't getting done is because of short-staffing doesn't have an excuse in my view," said Patrick, who said it was his understanding that the social worker's caseload was below a reduced level agreed to by Roche.
The state's unemployment rate dropped in November, from 7.2 percent to 7.1 percent, though not as fast as the overall national unemployment rate, which dropped to 7 percent in November. Last month was the first time the state's unemployment rate has exceeded the national rate since May 2007.
"We've generally had a good story to tell in terms of what's going on in Massachusetts as opposed to other states. Obviously I still think we have a lot more to do," said DeLeo, who served as Ways and Means Committee chairman before becoming speaker in 2009.
Five Democrats are seeking the Corner Office as are two Republicans.
"At this point it's much too premature to talk about who I'd support for governor," said DeLeo, who clarified he would support whoever wins the Democratic nomination. Asked if he was barring any involvement in the Democratic primary, he said, "Would I completely close the door? No. But on the other hand, it's something I probably, generally, would probably not, but on the other hand, who knows?"
Once Patrick leaves office in January 2015 and Senate President Therese Murray steps down from the presidency, which she would have to do by March 21, 2015, DeLeo will likely be the member of the "Big Three" who has held the office for longest.
"I don't look at that I have more seniority than them," said DeLeo, who will have to step down from his role as speaker by Jan. 28, 2017. He said, "We're all in this together, most importantly. If we can learn anything from Washington, I think it's that type of attitude that causes a lot of the gridlock there. I don't think we have that in Massachusetts."
Next year's legislative action will begin with a ceremonial opening of the two chambers, which DeLeo said members have requested to take place on Thursday, Jan. 2. The branches traditionally meet on the first Wednesday of January, which will be New Year's Day in 2014.
"We're going to be doing it on the second, I believe, at 1 o'clock," DeLeo said.
DeLeo spent about an hour ringing a bell in front of a Salvation Army red kettle, an activity undertaken by members of the House Republican leadership last week.