By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- In a letter being disseminated by the union that represents social workers, Department of Children and Families employees describe confusing directives that could put children at risk, rising caseloads that are "unsafe and unsustainable," and communication with the head office that "has been ineffective, at best."
The letter from unionized social workers to DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, which was first reported by the Boston Herald, said directives are issued "almost daily," and rarely in writing, leaving the interpretations to individual managers.
"Our colleagues have serious concerns that some of the recent directives originating from your office - and implemented by area managers - may have the exact opposite effect of what is intended," read the letter signed by SEIU Local 509 Chapter President Peter MacKinnon and others. "These directives have been put into practice without sufficient resources, communication or coordination - a process that may actually put children at greater risk."
A DCF official said directives are only issued in writing, and the agency has issued directives to investigate any allegation involving children under the age of 5 with young parents, or parents with other issues, such as drug abuse and domestic violence. The agency directed workers to consider intensive case management whenever an investigation results in a case being opened for services.
According to the letter, the directives have "forced a swift and dramatic spike in caseloads that is unsafe and unsustainable - even with new allotments for staffing."
According to DCF, there was a spike in reports made to DCF, causing an increase in caseloads. January's caseload ratio was 17.92 cases per social worker, according to DCF.
Gov. Deval Patrick's budget recommendation would provide enough funding to bring caseloads down to 15 per social worker, hiring 175 additional social workers and staff, according to DCF.
An SEIU 509 spokesman said in an email to the News Service, "Credit is due to the Administration for the initial hires that have already occurred. Unfortunately, it looks like DCF is actually down about 10 full-time-equivalent positions over February of last year, despite those recruitment efforts."
Scrutiny fell on the agency after news broke in December that 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver had been missing for months and was feared dead, even though DCF was supposed to have been monitoring him and his family.
"Consistent home visits are the lynchpin in child welfare practice to keeping children safe," read a Jan. 6 directive from DCF Acting Deputy Commissioner for Field Operations Paul Fitzsimons.
Issuing a directive for automatic screenings in certain circumstances of abuse or neglect, Fitzsimons wrote, "We recognize that this directive will require additional resources and we are working to secure appropriate funding to hire additional staff."
In a Jan. 9 response, union officials wrote that it is "troubling" the agency would issue the directive before securing funding, and said they are "concerned about screening procedures that focus solely on children age five and under. With such a significant amount of time and effort devoted to young children alone, we worry that cases involving older children could fall through the cracks."
The undated letter states morale is "at its lowest point in recent memory," describing the work environment as "toxic." The letter writers also wrote the "DCF management team seems to care more about statistics that the actual quality of services."
Roche has been meeting with staff around the state.
"I pledge my full support to you by continuing to make improvements to the Department that will positively impact our work," Roche wrote in a March 14 email to staff. She wrote, "It is my goal to get to every office over the next few weeks. If I have not yet visited yours, I plan to be there soon."
The letter went out to union officials Thursday night and was being distributed widely to social workers on Monday. It has not yet been delivered to Roche, Jason Stephany of SEIU Local 509.
Auditor Suzanne Bump is close to releasing an audit of the Department of Children and Families, an official said Tuesday.