By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- While the Department of Children and Families mishandled the case of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, a new independent review of the child welfare agency absolved the department of direct responsibility for the boy's death in a report outlining systemic staffing, policy and technology shortcomings.
The Patrick administration planned on Wednesday to release the final report from the Child Welfare League of America, which the state hired to examine the embattled child welfare agency. Gov. Deval Patrick, who is traveling in Israel on a business development trade mission, asked the organization to conduct a review of the department following well-documented lapses in case management that led, in the case of the 5-year-old Oliver, to the department losing track of the boy whose body was found on the side of a highway in Sterling last month.
"While there is significant evidence that some DCF staff did not do their jobs in the Oliver case, there is not evidence that DCF's actions and failures caused Jeremiah's death. DCF and many of the adults in Jeremiah's life failed to protect him," the report's authors wrote.
The findings of the report, a summary of which was provided to the News Service, build on preliminary recommendations offered in March by CWLA including a redistricting of DCF offices to balance social worker caseloads and the need to deploy more technology for use by social workers.
Many of those suggestions are in the process of being implemented, including hiring, though caseloads remain at an all-time high for the past 20 years fueled by increased substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence concerns and increased reporting from the community and "heightened vigilance" at DCF.
The report said Jeremiah's siblings have received "excellent supports and services" since being taken into DCF custody and are being given "everything they need to overcome the trauma of their experiences and the loss of their brother."
Patrick and the Legislature have been pouring new resources into DCF this year to facilitate hiring to lower caseloads, but CWLA suggests that recommended hiring of additional managerial staff, caseworkers, and specialists in substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence counseling will require "additional funding, beyond what has been recommended in the FY15 budget proposals."
The report also recommends increased funding for substance abuse treatment.
"To prevent the deaths of children, like Jeremiah, who come to the attention of DCF because of allegations of abuse and neglect, we must look beyond DCF itself; we must address the core issues that lead children and families to need DCF's intervention and services," the report said. "For many years, Massachusetts has not been attentive enough to these issues."
The Child Welfare League recommends that DCF continue to screen in for full investigation any report alleging abuse or neglect of a child 5-years-old or younger with young parents or parents with a history of drug abuse, domestic violence or mental health issues. The practice was put into place following the disappearance of Oliver.
A new licensing requirement for social workers, which is also being recommended by CWLA, is currently the subject of budget negotiations between the House and Senate. The child welfare group recommended that social workers be licensed within six months of their hiring.
The House and Senate also allocated funding for technology upgrades, and DCF officials say they hope to expand a pilot program by this summer to issue 2,000 tablets to social workers so that they have access to real time data.
The report found inadequate access for staff at DCF to technology, including cell phones and tablets and the ability to enter timely data into a centralized tracking system.
The Legislature has been delaying consideration of additional reforms until the full report is released, but House Post Audit and Oversight Committee Chairman David Linsky has said legislation could be filed depending on the recommendations.
"Our top priority over the next several months will be working to put these recommendations into action," interim DCF Commissioner Erin Deveney said in a statement. "While some of the changes can happen in the immediate future, others will occur over the long-term and will require continued commitment from our partners across the state."
Deveney was installed as interim commissioner in late April after Olga Roche stepped down amidst calls from legislative leaders for her to be fired. The administration is searching for a permanent commissioner, but even the governor has acknowledged the search could be difficult given his short time left in office.
The child welfare agency said it plans to put in place a 60-day action plan to implement as many short-term recommendations as possible, while other reforms may need to be negotiated with employee unions.
In addition to staffing and technology shortfalls, the CWLA found that case practices and policies were inconsistent at different offices around the state and that its case practice model rolled out in 2009 "at a crossroads" due to budget cuts, limited staff "buy-in," differences of opinion between union and management and growing caseloads.
The report recommends adding medical staff to every area office so that children can be seen by a doctor within 24 hours of entering DCF's custody, and state officials said DCF is in the process of hiring a director of integrated health services and collaborating with pediatricians to identify medical priorities.
The 60-day action plan for the agency calls for the creation of a "Kitchen Cabinet" of stakeholders to help advise the commissioner on needed policy changes and to help develop a medical review panel for consultation on complex medical cases.