BOSTON -- Gov. Deval Patrick told a gathering of social workers Tuesday they should be given a raise and more technology to do a job he said the public misconceives and attempts to simplify.
"You do the Lord's work. I think about it: mental health, substance abuse issues. You've got a scourge of opiate use and abuse all over the Commonwealth - all over the region, for that matter - domestic violence, poverty - which is the compounding and maybe unifying issue among the people we serve," Patrick told the hundreds of social workers and social work students gathered in the State House.
"And frankly, a public that doesn't understand the complexities of the population you serve, who look for simple answers; who look for short and quick answers; who look for a kind of a once-over, easy, put-it back-in-the-box because it's ugly and unattractive and complicated and difficult, and we'd rather not actually spend the time and the energy to understand it.
The disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg - whose 7-year-old sister alerted school authorities that he hadn't been seen in early December - and subsequent revelations that the Department of Children and Families social worker assigned to his case had not seen him for months has galvanized critical attention on the agency and efforts to increase its funding.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump is finalizing a report on the agency, which is undergoing a review by the Child Welfare League of America, and was the subject of a report by the Child Advocate, which revealed social workers only meet the requirement of documented monthly home visits 82.5 percent of the time.
Sixteen Republican and eight Democratic House lawmakers signed a letter calling for the resignation of DCF Commissioner Olga Roche. Patrick has stood by Roche and her ability to lead the agency.
"We have a very short-term memory in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We'll have a crisis; we fix; we forget," Marylou Sudders, a Boston College social work professor and board member of the Health Policy Commission, told the News Service. "And what we need to do is really sustain public support for what is some of the most complicated and difficult and challenging work in the Commonwealth, which is to ensure that kids are safe and have the opportunity to thrive."
Sudders said she expects the auditor will discuss the need for improved documentation, increased primary care visits, and screening for foster families. Sudders also said she agrees with a January DCF directive to investigate all reports involving a child under the age of 5 in a problematic living situation, such as one where drug use is occurring.
SEIU Local 509 has aired concerns that there are an abundance of new and confusing directives from DCF officials, a lack of adequate staffing, and that "cases involving older children could fall through the cracks" as the agency focuses on young children.
"The younger the child, the more dependent they are on adults," said Sudders, who said she believes both the union and DCF officials should sit down together rather than airing their differences publicly.
Patrick's proposed $819 million DCF budget appropriation, which Roche has said is a $32.7 million, or 4.2 percent increase over projected fiscal year 2014 spending, would fund 175 new DCF staffers.
"And by the way, you need a raise, and we ought to work on that, too," Patrick said to applause as he noted the investments in technology and manpower he said the department requires.
Social workers visited the State House in such numbers Tuesday that Gardner Auditorium was filled with people who could not find a seat in the event held in Great Hall. They lobbied on bills mandating earned sick time (H 1739/ S 900), banning medical professionals from trying to change a minor's sexual orientation (H 154) and loan forgiveness for social workers (H 1077/ S 51).
Joy Henry, a former public relations professional who is a clinical social worker at the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain, likened social workers to teachers who are engaged in many aspects of a child's life, and agreed with the governor that some seek an easy solution to the complex job of strengthening families and empowering people.
"I definitely don't think that DCF the agency is looking for a simple answer," Henry told the News Service. She said, "When you're on the outside looking in it may seem like there's a simple answer or a simple solution to the problem, but I think that it's more involved."
DCF union leaders have circulated a letter with several pointed criticisms of Roche's leadership, including directives compounding their already excessive caseloads, ineffective communication with the top office and low morale.
Some child welfare advocates who rushed to support Roche after 24 House members called for Patrick to seek her resignation, told the News Service Monday that their support had not diminished since learning that the union is circulating a letter with complaints.
"I'm not sure who they could get to come in to run the department for eight months," said William Lyttle, the former president of the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers and president of the social service agency Key Program Inc. Patrick will leave office next January.
Lyttle said DCF's administrative staff "has been decimated over the past four or five years."
"I hope she can weather this storm, because I believe she's the right one to do it," said Linda Cavaioli, executive director of the YWCA in Worcester, who like many Roche supporters cited a long history with Roche and her career, which began as a social worker.