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DCF removing kids at unprecedented rate.

Byline: Paula J. Owen

The Department of Children and Families is removing children at risk of abuse from their families at an unprecedented rate, according to court data as the governor cracks down on the agency following the disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy in DCF care whose social worker failed to carry out required home visits.

From Jan. 1-15, 2012, DCF filed 15 care and protection petitions in Worcester, Milford, Dudley, Leominster and Fitchburg courts.

A "C and P case'' is a court proceeding in which a juvenile court judge decides whether a child has been or is at risk of serious abuse or neglect by a caretaker, and decides whether the guardian is unfit to care for the child and who will have custody of the child. The majority of C and P petitions are filed by DCF.

During the same time this year, 42 C and P petitions were filed in the same Worcester County courts, according to court data, that will affect at least that many children, depending on how large the families are.

The high number of C and P cases in the past few weeks were filed under new directives by DCF Commissioner Olga I. Roche in the wake of the Jeremiah Oliver case.

DCF workers say the new directives will only exacerbate problems and go against the agencies mission of keeping families together.

The approach now, they say, is to remove the children first, then try to fix the problems and try to put the families back together, further strapping a system in crisis -- from the lack of foster homes, funding for additional staff and overburdening courts.

"They say the new directives err on the side of caution, but they err on the side of job protection,'' says social worker Khrystian E. King, who works in DCF's Worcester East office.

He said the model of keeping children with their families and in their communities and providing support services has become secondary since the Jeremiah Oliver case.

"The last couple of days there has been a flourish of activity in Worcester Juvenile Court from custody requests from DCF in numbers that are unprecedented,'' the former state representative candidate said. "The judge is actually questioning giving emergency custody to the department because it is so borderline.''

Previously, he said when C and P petitions were filed in court, the state was almost always awarded custody of the children. Now, judges are questioning if emergency custody is necessary, Mr. King said.

"Now, instead of providing services, we are taking custody because of risk, the media and politics -- that is just the reality,'' he said.

When asked about DCF's recent increase in seeking Care and Protection orders and whether that was placing a burden on the system, Cayenne Isaksen, a DCF spokeswoman, said, "These questions are best directed to the courts.''

Martha P. Grace, retired chief justice of the juvenile court in Massachusetts, said the high number of C and P filings by DCF is not uncommon after an incident like the Jeremiah Oliver case.

"It always follows an incident that creates a lot of pressure on the department to file,'' she said. "Historically, whenever a scandal or incident occurs, the number of filings has gone up dramatically. I don't know if it is because the department is afraid or more attentive. Sitting judges can't talk about it, but the pattern will be the same. This happens when a child dies on someone's watch every few years. It is tragic and sometimes it is preventable and sometimes it isn't.''

She said DCF has a mission to preserve families, but also to protect children and keep them safe.

"Sometimes, those missions are contradictory and they don't always know what the right thing to do is,'' she said.

Cuts to DCF's budget only worsen the issue, she said.

"I wouldn't want to be the commissioner for all the tea in China,'' she added.

Mr. King said when he heard 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver disappeared, infant Marlon Devine Santos' disappearance 15 years earlier immediately popped into his head.

Like Jeremiah's family, 5-month-old Marlon's family was receiving services from the state, then called the Department of Social Services. And, like Jeremiah, it was days before his disappearance was reported -- though it took much longer in Jeremiah Oliver's case.

Marlon disappeared from his foster home in Worcester and Jeremiah, who resided with his mother, was last seen by family members months before he was reported missing.

In both cases, the families were uncooperative with investigators and the Worcester district attorney's office is treating the disappearances as homicides. Both cases remain unsolved.

Jeremiah's case led to the firing of three DCF workers in the Leominster office and sparked an outside review of DCF policies. New directives were immediately instituted.

Although Gov. Deval L. Patrick says there are no systemic issues within the agency, some workers disagree.

Moreover, some DCF workers assert the new directives aimed at improving how cases are managed will further overwhelm social workers who are already dealing with crisis-level case loads.

"What happened to Jeremiah could happen to any of these children,'' Mr. King said.

"The harsh reality of this work is that children are going to be harmed under DCF involvement,'' he said. "There are lots of risks and we do the best we can with the resources we have. Children fatalities and children being harmed, they happen. They are going to happen. We can't prevent everything.''

In his office, social workers have an average of 16.5 cases, though experts recommend 12 to 15 is the maximum number of cases that any one social worker should handle at one time.

In November, a social worker in the North Central office in Leominster had a case load of 57 children with 25 of those in DCF placement and was assigned another family with four children in December after Jeremiah Oliver was reported missing, said social worker Joseph Manna, who works in that office.

That social worker's supervisor was also supervising Jeremiah's social worker, he said.

Mr. Manna said he repeatedly pleaded with management in the Leominster office to address unmanageable case loads.

"The social worker with 57 kids was not seeing all those kids -- how could she?'' said Mr. Manna, who is also a regional union vice president.

"I was trying to empower her and her supervisor to speak up. She was still resistant and fearful of going to management. Social workers are hard working, educated and dedicated people. So, the question is raised -- why are they fearful of going to management?''

According Ms. Isaksen of the DCF, the commissioner is addressing staffing issues.

"The Department shares the same goals of having manageable case loads to help our social workers succeed,'' Ms. Isaksen said in a statement. "DCF leadership meets with human resources weekly to address staffing needs in area offices and look at potential case load issues. Ensuring that our social workers have the tools they need to succeed in protecting children is a priority of the department.''

In her written directive to staff, Ms. Roche's plan to improve the safety net for children needing protective services, includes the investigation of any report alleging abuse or neglect of a child five or younger in which the parent(s) present any, or a combination, of risk factors: young parents; or parents of any age who have a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, or unresolved childhood trauma.

"We recognize that this directive will require additional resources and we are working to secure appropriate funding to hire additional staff,'' the directive states.

The wording in the directive is vague, Mr. King said, and when those cases go through the investigative process, that is supposed to take 15 business days, social workers' case loads will explode.

Additionally, all children are to be seen monthly, the directive says, or if a month is missed, in the first two weeks of the subsequent month.

In her report on the handling of the Oliver case, Ms. Roche states the social worker from the North Central office in Leominster assigned to the Oliver case only visited the home three times in the year she had the case, although there were numerous reports of abuse of the Oliver children.

"We are on the front line and we have an acute, vivid picture of what works and what doesn't work,'' Mr. King said. "It is taking away the clinical discretion of the social worker and the supervisor as it relates to child protection and contact. They are paying millions of dollars for this agency, why don't you ask us to determine what the needs are? People don't want to talk about these issues. They're afraid for their jobs. We are in the job of child protection and that should be first and foremost.''

However, the new directives are not-so-new to social workers in the North Central office, Mr. Manna says.

According to Mr. Manna, the commissioner's new model is similar to what Area Director Marcia Roddy, who oversees the Leominster and Whitinsville offices, put in place that failed and led to Jeremiah's disappearance.

"I had multiple meetings with the supervisor (of Jeremiah's social worker) in the weeks leading up to Dec. 13,'' he explained. "I was extremely concerned that the supervisor was overseeing a unit of social workers with extremely high case loads. I encouraged the supervisor to notify the management of the dangerous and unmanageable case loads assigned to her unit of social workers.''(Ms. Roddy did not return a call seeking comment for this story.)

"The supervisor (of Jeremiah's social worker) did not inform the management in the Leominster office. I believe that the supervisor did not believe the management team in the that office would address the issue in a professional and productive manner. This sentiment is very common in the DCF Leominster office.''

Social workers, he alleges, are overwhelmed and are working in a culture of fear and intimidation under Ms. Roddy, who he alleges acts "outside the rules.''

Under her tenure, she has implemented policies that reach beyond the scope of DCF regulations, he alleges, and said Ms. Roddy is the reason for crisis-level case loads in Leominster and Whitinsville.

"Ms. Roddy has implemented a model that results in each office screening in very high rates of 51A reports and supporting 51B investigations,'' Mr. Manna said. "This model shifts the responsibility from DCF management to the frontline DCF social workers and supervisors. The DCF managers must sign off on 51A screen out cases and 51B unsupported for abuse and neglect. This model of deflecting responsibility results in unmanageable case loads.''

Now, he says, the commissioner has spread that same model throughout the state as a "knee jerk'' response.

On Nov. 29, before Jeremiah Oliver was reported missing, Mr. Manna said he met with the commissioner about the case load crisis, but Ms. Roche declined to accept the union's recommendations.

"She said the money is not there, yet, to hire new staff, but there were other things we wanted to do in preparation and things we can do now that will help,'' he said. "The social worker who had 57 kids, management could have adjusted her case load.''

He said the union also recommended redistricting area offices to better distribute case loads throughout the region and to transfer staff to offices with higher case loads.

Further, Mr. Manna alleges management problems in the Whitinsville and Leominster offices have adversely effected operations. He notes an ethics violation was filed as a result.

Ms. Isaksen said in a statement, "We take all allegations seriously and when we receive information from staff or others we conduct a comprehensive investigation.''"A full investigation into allegations of ethics violations was conducted several months ago, when they were first made, and found to be unsubstantiated,'' she said.

Contact Paula Owen at Follow her on Twitter @PaulaOwenTG.
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Owen, Paula J.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 19, 2014
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