By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
WATERTOWN -- Facing questions about the safety of children, a spike in requests for custody and a federal judge's admonishment, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche defended the agency's work on Monday.
DCF, which hopes to improve its oversight of children with new hires and new technology called for in Gov. Deval Patrick's budget, has been under scrutiny since the news broke in December that 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, of Fitchburg, had not been seen in months and was now feared dead.
"There is always a great opportunity for us to improve the system," Roche told reporters after her testimony at a budget hearing. "We can do our work better when we have a workable workload for our social workers, enhanced technology and more staff and oversight."
Roche's responses to lawmakers' questions in nearly two hours of testimony before the House and Senate Ways and Means committees were frustrating to Rep. Matt Beaton, a Shrewsbury Republican.
"Where does the buck stop, because I have yet to hear the governor or the commissioner point to anything but funding and technology as the answers?" Rep. Matt Beaton asked the commissioner. He said, "I really would just like someone to finally address this structural issue that exists within the department and speak to it frankly without dodging anything or pointing to money and technology."
Roche said "accountability" stops with her, and later did not directly answer a reporter's question about why Beaton would have been frustrated.
Roche said some of the reportedly 557 foster families with criminal records that were cleared to receive children involved individuals who last committed a crime as long as 30 years ago, and sometimes they are flagged for a crime committed by a biological child. Roche also said the agency prefers to place children in foster families that are part of the child's larger family.
"I'm just wondering what they are and how significant they are, but we're not talking about a fight when they're 18-years-old and now they're 45," said Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, a Fitchburg Democrat and vice-chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means, who received a master's degree in mental health counseling from Fitchburg State. "We're putting vulnerable kids in their care. We wouldn't want to do it to elders, we wouldn't want to do it to those with disabilities and I don't want to do it to kids."
Roche who has faced hours of public questioning and met with House lawmakers behind closed doors, advocated for a spending increase and discussed areas of concern at a budget hearing held at Perkins School for the Blind.
Asked about a reported 86 percent jump in removal requests this January and whether it was a pendulum shift, Roche said there have been more referrals to the agency since the disappearance of Oliver and DCF attempts to provide a balance helping families and children. After answering a few questions at a press availability, Roche said nothing as she walked away when asked if there had been any directives from her office regarding taking children into custody.
"I worry that the pendulum of decision-making might be swinging too far in the other direction," said Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat.
Roche noted that the courts have oversight when DCF seeks custody of a child.
Rep. Geoffrey Diehl, a Whitman Republican, spoke about criticisms made by Judge William Young about the agency, that it had not even followed its own internal policies, and asked Roche what those specific policies were.
"Again, we're going to be looking forward," Roche said in the beginning of her reply.
"She pointed repeatedly to the fact that they will be working on issues with outside groups, but it seems to be there was little internal review done in the past, other than to in some cases I suppose fire people, in cases that were public," Diehl said afterwards. He said, "If you're being told by a federal judge that you're not even meeting your own internal policies, let alone state and federal standards, then I think you have to take a real strong look at what's going on. Now I understand she's only been on the job for eight months, but she also had worked as a regional manager for the department for a long time."
Gov. Deval Patrick recommended a DCF budget of $819 million, which Roche said is a $32.7 million, or 4.2 percent, increase over projected spending in fiscal year 2014. The funding would allow the agency, which experienced cuts during and after the Great Recession, to bring aboard 177 full-time-equivalent hires, including 143 social workers and supervisors, 25 managers and five attorneys.
Patrick's budget will provide $9.2 million, which Roche said would bring caseloads down toward 15 cases per social worker. It will also provide $3.8 million to raise departmental foster care rates up by about 6 percent, and it provides $3 million to expand the Family Resource Center model, serving children up to the age of 18.
The administration also plans to make it easier for social workers to file up-to-date reports by providing mobile technology for writing reports rather than the current paper system. Roche said the union contract requires social workers' reports of contacts be filed within 30 days, and Roche said the department is asking for social workers to do them more frequently.
"We're asking them to enter those contacts as they happen," Roche said.
After serving as acting commissioner for months, Roche became commissioner in October, just before the agency's failure to protect Oliver came to light, after the 5-year-old's older sister told authorities about the abuse back home and her brother's disappearance.
"Children are losing parents, parents that are being devastated by the effects of drugs, alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence," said Roche, who said heroin use is a major problem. She also spoke about the importance of keeping a family intact when it is safe enough to do so, saying, "Family is forever."