By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- Senate leaders are calling for an investigation into a Department of Children and Families office southeast of Worcester where a school superintendent has alleged the agency was slow to respond in some cases and may have left vulnerable children in danger.
"It is my sincere hope that the department will perform a thorough review of the Whitinsville office's handling of the cases outlined by the superintendent, and take the appropriate steps necessary to ensure the protection of the children helped by the office," Senate President Therese Murray wrote in a Jan. 2 letter to DCF Commissioner Olga Roche. "Furthermore, if these disturbing allegations raised by the superintendent are in fact true, I hope for the swift and immediate removal and overhaul of management at the Whitinsville office."
DCF came under scrutiny in December, after it became apparent that its social workers had lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old from Fitchburg who is now feared dead. The program manager of the North Central Office has been fired, along with a supervisor and a social worker. The last time any DCF official had contact with Oliver was in May 2013.
As lawmakers have discussed holding investigatory hearings on the matter, Sen. Richard Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat, brought to the Senate president concerns about the DCF office in his district.
In an announcement on Monday, Moore said Murray was "outraged at such failings" and said the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight plans to launch an investigation.
"How many times are we going to have oversight hearings for that agency?" Murray told the News Service in December. "It's just outrageous. This is an agency that constantly has to be revisited. So if we know that, and we do know that as a Legislature, there has to be better oversight and continuous oversight. Maybe a forensic audit every year or two years has to happen with the agency."
Democratic candidate for governor Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general, on Tuesday released her plans for strengthening the agency's child-protection mission, while a Republican House member suggested there is a "management" problem at the agency.
Roche will meet with Northbridge Superintendent Nancy Spitulnik, Office of Health and Human Services spokesman Alec Loftus told the News Service Monday night.
Moore's office released a copy of Spitulnik's letter and subsequently asked for news media not to use information that could potentially be used to glean an individual's identity.
The superintendent said it took numerous reports of child abuse before a student was removed from a home for sexual abuse, and the department had breached confidentiality in a case by telling a parent the identity of a teacher who had filed an abuse report.
Spitulnik wrote that DCF would "regularly" close cases if the parents did not cooperate, putting the children in "immediate danger."
DCF did not "follow-up" on a homeless student living without a parent, and "refused" to accept a so-called 51A report of child abuse or neglect for a student who had missed several months of school.
The SEIU Local 509 representing the social workers has said in firing caseworkers Roche found a "convenient scapegoat" and said the caseloads of social workers "have long stood at crisis levels."
Spitulnik wrote she was disturbed to read in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that SEIU Local 509 spokesman Jason Stephany said that the Whitinsville office was the only DCF location in the state with higher caseloads than the Leominster office, which was supposed to keep track of Oliver.
"We have been trying to work with our DCF office to ensure a timely, appropriate response to the 51A's that we file," Spitulnik wrote. "If it has been known that the caseloads in this office are too high, I'm appalled that no actions have been taken to correct this situation in order to ensure the safety and well-being of our students before a similar tragedy occurs here."
The Patrick administration and others have pushed back against the notion that understaffing was to blame for the agency losing track of Oliver, and Roche said the caseworker and supervisors failed as home visits were not occurring.
"This was not a workload issue. This was a worker that failed to do the basic needs of their responsibility," said Roche, who said the social worker and supervisor didn't provide an adequate reason for their failure beyond saying they were "busy with other cases."
Roche took over the agency in October after serving as interim commissioner since April.
"This agency's about $40 million over what it was in 2012, so we really get a sense of, is it just Leominster or was it the entire state?" asked Rep. Viriato deMacedo on Fox 25 Monday night, questioning whether the recommendations of a commission a few years ago have been followed. The Plymouth Republican said he was concerned that problems at the agency are a "management issue."
In response to the state's handling of the Oliver case, Attorney General Martha Coakley on Tuesday called for the creation of a separate child protection division within the Department of Children and Families to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.
The press release detailing Coakley's proposal on Tuesday came from her campaign for governor. Coakley, who once led the child abuse unit in the Middlesex District Attorney's office, said DCF's dual charge of protecting children from abuse while also strengthening family units creates "enormous tension" for caseworkers and supervisors.
"As Governor, I will be committed to implementing the crucial changes needed to help ensure that no child is the victim of preventable sexual, physical, or serious emotional abuse," Coakley said in a statement.
Coakley said DCF's record of protecting children has improved under Gov. Deval Patrick, but argued that the structure of the agency "puts children at risk and overburdens social workers."
Under Coakley's proposed restructuring, a small number of cases would be immediately referred to the district attorney's office for criminal investigation, while cases that remain within DCF but present a risk of continued child abuse or neglect would be referred to the newly created Child Protection Division. The new division would investigate and initiate proceedings to remove the child from the home, refer the matter to a district attorney for prosecution, or help connect the family with supports that will allow the child to remain in the home.
In the case of Oliver, who remains missing and is presumed dead, DCF Commissioner Olga Roche said the social worker assigned to the case failed to fulfill her duties of providing home visits to assess the well-being of Jeremiah and his siblings, while supervisors failed to enforce department policy.