By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- While saying relations with the new Department of Children and Families commissioner are an improvement over her predecessor, the president of the union representing social workers told a legislative panel the agency is still struggling with high caseloads and low morale.
"Caseloads remain at crisis levels," said Peter MacKinnon, who has been employed within the department for 15 years and heads a union made up of 2,800 social workers, investigators and support staff. "Morale remains low. Vital support positions like social work technicians, eliminated during tougher economic times, have yet to be restored. And while hiring has finally begun to outpace the rate of those leaving DCF employment, our attrition rate remains high."
Nearly every office has seen an increase in "screen-in rates" - the number of child abuse and neglect investigations - and many cases are open for longer periods, he added in testimony to the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee.
"Local managers remain fearful of making a 'wrong decision' that could find them responsible for the next Jeremiah Oliver," MacKinnon said, referring to the 5-year-old who went missing and ultimately died after the department lost track of him. "While an overabundance of caution may be a natural reaction in situations like these, taking those reactions to such extremes actually has the reverse effect, ultimately increasing the chances of another tragedy.
But, he added, "There is a hope we have turned a corner."
Interim Commissioner Erin Deveney has "worked hard to open up the lines of communication," he said.
Others at the oversight hearing also voiced similarly hopeful notes, including Deveney and the committee's chairman, Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick).
"I believe we've begun to turn this aircraft carrier around," Linsky said after the hearing, which lasted two hours.
In May, the Child Welfare League of America issued a report saying there was not enough evidence to determine whether the agency's failures to oversee Oliver's family situation led to his death. As part of the report, the independent group offered dozens of recommendations aimed at updating agency practices and policies, which department officials say are occurring.
The fiscal 2015 budget passed by the House and Senate sets aside $827 million for the agency, a $48 million increase over fiscal year 2014. The agency will be using $250,000 for the hiring of a medical director.
Interim Commissioner Deveney, who was appointed to the job two and a half months ago and succeeded Olga Roche, said as of June 24 the department has 143 more social workers on staff than it did in January 2014.
For the month of May, the caseload was around 20 cases per social worker, she said.
But Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) said the average is "not telling us the whole picture," adding that the ratio of 15 cases to 1 social worker is the preferred number.
Farley-Bouvier said she recently spent time with DCF workers in the Berkshire region during a busy day. "It seems social workers don't get lunch" and spend time on the road due to the geography of the Berkshires, she said.
According to Farley-Bouvier, a social worker visited a foster home to visit one of her charges and upon arrival found out another child, overseen by another worker, had been placed there over the weekend, highlighting a need for more communication and real-time information.
Deveney said as of May 2014, the western Massachusetts region has some of the highest caseloads, with 153 social workers who have caseload counts of over 20.
Deveney said it will take several months from the time a social worker is hired for the statistics to fully reflect the hire. "The relief is starting to be introduced in the field," though the caseload numbers will not immediately reflect that, she said.
Achieving a 15-to-1 caseload ratio is contingent on how high or low the demand is for the department's services, Deveney said.
The 143 new caseworkers are accounting for the attrition the department is seeing in its workforce, she said.
Deveney said department officials have distributed 150 iPads at the Springfield office as part of an initial testing phase, allowing social workers to remotely access case information and add visitation information. In total, 2,300 tablets will end up being distributed to social workers, with a focus on the ones who spend time on social visits and in court, she said.
The department has also introduced the use of a "dashboard" tool that will allow workers to access an application giving them a list of children who haven't been seen in a certain period of time, she said.
"That's going to be important to help the worker prioritize their work and making sure they are getting out and they are interacting with the families," Deveney said.