By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Gov. Deval Patrick plans today to publicly address the boiling controversy over operations and management at the Department of Children and Families, which has been under intense scrutiny and criticism since it was revealed late last year that a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy had disappeared under its watch.
The governor spent Sunday in his office at the State House meeting with senior staff and administration officials to gather information and input on the situation, including new data that surfaced in recent days from a report written by the Office of the Child Advocate and during a legislative oversight hearing.
Patrick will meet at 8 a.m. Monday with representatives from the Child Welfare League of America, which the administration hired recently to conduct an independent review of the agency. Patrick plans to discuss the scope of their work so far and areas on which he would like to see their investigation focus, according to a top administration official.
Following the meeting, Patrick plans to hold a press conference at 9:30 a.m. in Room 157 to share his concerns and discuss the steps he would like to see taken.
"I think we'll be able to give them more targeted areas for focus and be clear about the expectations of their work," said Brendan Ryan, chief of staff to the governor.
Patrick on Sunday summoned Child Advocate Gail Garinger, DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowitz and leadership of the S.E.U.I. Local 509, representing social workers, to his office for meetings that lasted from 11:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.
The union has been vocal about their concerns over caseloads, which have been consistently higher at offices throughout the state than mandated under contract. In his new fiscal 2015 budget proposal, Patrick proposed $9 million to help reduce average caseloads from 18 to 15, or 28 children, per social worker.
The governor also spoke by telephone with Rep. David Linsky, who led the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday, and Rep. Kay Khan, the House chair of the Committee on Children and Families, and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.
Since the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, who is now feared dead by authorities, administration officials have fired the social worker assigned to the Oliver family and her two supervisors. An internal report by DCF revealed that the social worker failed to conduct required monthly home visits and ignored warning signs of trouble in the family, while her supervisors did not enforce department protocol.
Since then, concerns have been raised by local school officials about the department's handling of child abuse complaints in other parts of the state, and Garinger's report drew attention to high caseloads and systemic struggles to meet basic home visitation requirements.
Patrick himself has also drawn criticism related to his leadership since these issues have been raised. "I haven't seen any evidence that there's been a focused and aggressive approach. There should be urgency on this every day," Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker told the Boston Herald last week.
Ryan said the governor has been deeply involved since the Oliver story came to light, and the administration has been looking at not just what happens at DCF, but best practices in other states.