By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- Facing growing concerns over operations at the Department of Children and Families, the Patrick administration plans to hire the Child Welfare League of America to independently review the agency over the coming months.
Administration officials believe the review will ensure that the department, charged with protecting abused and neglected children, has the best policies and procedures in place for families and children. The national group is expected to make recommendations for improvements after completing its review.
The department has come under scrutiny for its mishandling of the case of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who is missing and feared dead. Three department employees associated with the agency's north central office have been fired and a fourth suspended in connection with the case.
This week, senators expressed outrage over concerns raised by a school superintendent who alleged DCF's south central office was slow to respond in cases and may have left vulnerable children in danger.
Also, Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chairman of the Legislature's Children and Families Committee, expressed concern that budget cuts have diminished the agency's oversight capabilities and said Wednesday it was "harder to suppose we're dealing with just a few bad apples rather than a systemic problem."
Gov. Deval Patrick has insisted the agency does not suffer from systemic problems but acknowledged Wednesday the deep public concerns raised by the Oliver case and hinted a review was a possibility.
"DCF is responsible for protecting the Commonwealth's most vulnerable children from abuse and neglect - and this is not a responsibility that we take lightly," state Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said in a statement. "The Department has strong policies in place, and the CWLA's independent review will ensure those policies are the right ones and provide recommendations to further strengthen our child welfare practices."
The review is expected to assess DCF policies and practices while looking in particular at "areas of supervision and management, home visits, processing of reports of abuse and neglect and how the Department deals with families with young children."
In a statement, Christine James Brown, president and CEO of CWLA, said, "We know that violence, substance abuse, and trauma can have a devastating effect on all children and especially young children. We also know that there are a range of specific administrative and front-line practices that are necessary to help keep children safe. CWLA intends to bring its standard setting knowledge and on the ground experience with agencies across the country to this quality improvement review that will assess what is working and what is needed to best protect the children of the Commonwealth."
Saying "every child involved with this agency is potentially at risk," Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester on Wednesday reiterated his call for an independent review, suggesting it be done by the state auditor or the inspector general.
"The situation involving the Department of Children and Families and a missing child continues to demand an independent investigation as to not only what has occurred in the Oliver case, but also the systemic deficiencies which led to this young child's disappearance and which may be contributing to other problems if left undetected," Tarr said in a statement.
An internal DCF review of the Oliver case revealed that the social workers assigned to work with Jeremiah's family, including his mother and two siblings, failed to make the required monthly home visits to ensure the well-being of the children. Supervisors, including the area program manager, knew the home visits were not occurring, but failed to take action to address the missed visits.
While he has acknowledged the oversight lapses in the Oliver case, Patrick has also noted the good work that social workers do and said Tuesday he did not want to jump to conclusions about the agency.
"I think it's important not to jump to conclusions," he said. "They have an enormously difficult job. They perform miracles every day, hundreds and hundreds of miracles that don't get the attention of all of you here, but do earn, I believe, the respect of the public, certainly of mine."