By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Gov. Deval Patrick stood by his child protection agency chief on Monday amidst new calls for her resignation in connection with the ongoing controversy shrouding the Department of Children and Families.
Patrick also defended DCF's work with the family of a 9-year-old Mattapan boy shot and killed by his brother.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker called on DCF Commissioner Olga Roche to resign, becoming the first Corner Office candidate to encourage Patrick to dump the head of the agency that has been scrutinized since the disappearance of a young Fitchburg boy last year. Several GOP lawmakers echoed Baker's message.
Patrick, who was on his way to a meeting Monday with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, said he continues to have faith in Roche's leadership.
"We've been working on the issues of DCF for a long time, the staffing questions, the policy questions, the model and so forth. She's got a tough job and her staff has a tough job but she's doing it ably and they deal with some of the most difficult families and some of the most difficult children in some of the most difficult circumstances," Patrick said. "We're going to keep at it and she has my support and the secretary's as well."
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The governor, who has hired the Child Welfare League of America to review the department's management and policies, said it's easy to lay blame without taking into account the circumstances surrounding families involved with DCF.
"At any given time you can pick out stories of tragedy and try to run somebody out of office on account of it. What I know is that she, working with the team under those very difficult circumstances, is doing their very best," Patrick said.
The Boston Globe on Monday reported that Massachusetts ranked 38 out of 50 states in the percentage of foster children visited each month by caseworkers, and that the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability ranked the state last for child protection because of its poor cumulative scores.
"Obviously I don't like where we are in that report," said Patrick, who added that some of the criteria used to rank states compared "apples to oranges."
Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said Massachusetts is one of five state to use a system with the "lowest intensity" for screening in cases of reported child abuse for follow-up, which contributed to its score. He also said the group gave the state zero scores in categories that the state did not fully report data because it was either not collected by the agency or because, in the case of fatality reports, the state waits until it has completed reports from the medical examiner.
"If there are other states doing it better than us, we should understand that and figure out how to do it, and I know the commission is willing to do that," Polanowicz said.
Calling it a "horrible, horrible case," Patrick said a DCF caseworker made a home visit on Jan. 30, eight days before the accidental shooting death of a 9-year-old Mattapan boy by his 14-year-old brother
"More often than not there are happy endings, but sometimes there are not and I think a whole lot of us in the family and at DCF are mostly wishing that that boy was alive today," Patrick said.
Detailing some of the state's long involvement with the family, Polanowicz said the older brother ran away from a 45-day residential program in Norwood last May after DCF tried to place him there, and made an attempt to take him into state custody late last year but were not successful. Even after the state failed to take custody of the teen, Polanowicz said DCF continued its outreach to the mother, and the social worker involved was "absolutely shattered" by the shooting.
"This is one of those areas the department did all the right things and we just have an incredibly tragic outcome with guns that we hope to get off the streets," Polanowicz said.
Both Polanowicz and Patrick also defended DCF's practices of granting waivers to foster parents with criminal records. The secretary said those cases are mostly "kinship placements" in homes with adults who may have had older or juvenile offenses on their records, and they are carefully vetted at several levels in the agency.
"I think those are judgments that should be made by professionals and not by me sitting in this building and not in the media either," Patrick said.
In an interview with the News Service, Senate President Therese Murray said she wants to wait to see what the Child Welfare League of America recommends, but has some ideas of her own that she thinks would make sense to reinforce the work DCF does.
"I will wait and see what happens, but I have been talking about having these survey teams go into every office periodically and go through the cases. Checks and balances," she said.
Murray compared the idea to the teams used by the Department of Public Health that perform regular checks on nursing homes to make sure they are operating under proper rules and conditions.
"I see no reason why we shouldn't have something similar. And it offers and additional set of eyes for maybe an overburdened field worker who might have missed something," Murray said.
Murray said she was "shocked" to read that Massachusetts ranks among the bottom of states for child protection "because we've put a lot of effort and time into this agency over and over," including reducing caseloads and adding psychiatrists.
The Plymouth Democrat called the work done by DCF employees "a thankless job" dealing with issues of substance abuse, poverty and cultural differences. Though she said she'd like to know more about how DCF screens foster parents with criminal records, Murray said there is a shortage of families willing to take foster kids into their homes.
"We don't have enough foster homes. There are a lot of good people out there who would like to be foster parents that are excluded because of age or other things. Maybe we have to take a look at that also," Murray said.