In his defense of state child welfare commissioner Olga Roche, Gov. Deval Patrick asserted that the complex problems at the Department of Children and Families (DCF) couldn’t be solved simply by replacing one individual. He was right, but with one debacle after another emerging, Ms. Roche had to go, and she resigned Tuesday. That is only the first step in straightening out DCF, and realistically, that task can only be started before the governor leaves office in eight months.
By giving the post to Erin Deveney, a lawyer who has spent most of the Patrick administration at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the governor brought in a well-regarded manager with no experience in the field of child welfare. It is hard to imagine any capable and experienced expert in that field taking the job with the knowledge that next January a new governor is likely to want his or her own person for the position. DCF’s problems are to an extent managerial, however, so Ms. Deveney should be able to do some good.
The DCF came under fire last December when it acknowledged that a missing Fitchburg preschooler that it was supposed to be monitoring had not been visited by a service worker since the previous April. The discovery of the boy’s body by the side of a highway on April 19 stoked the fire under DCF. This past Saturday, a newborn baby died in Fitchburg after her parents failed to attend a meeting with a DCF staffer. That same day, the agency admitted that a fax sent April 3 from the Grafton police warning that a one-month-old infant was in potential danger was lost until April 9, two days before the child died. The governor, who was still defending Ms. Roche last week, began setting the stage for her departure on Monday.
There is no denying the incredible difficulty of the job DCF faces. Many of the parents it is dealing with are irresponsible at best, criminally negligent at worst. Workers complain of overwhelming workloads that make it difficult to do jobs that are often discouraging and heartbreaking. That said, the failure to even visit the family of the Fitchburg preschooler through much of last year is indefensible. So is losing a fax at a time when the agency should be insisting on email communications and telephone follow-ups for issues as serious as the one in Grafton.
State funding for child welfare has declined by $134 million over the past five years, and DCF’s need for revenue to hire more employees and update technology is an issue for the weeks ahead. So is the DCF’s philosophy that children should be kept within their families and sent to foster homes only as a last resort. Recent events suggest this is shortsighted.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker told The Eagle in a meeting Tuesday that a regional approach by the DCF would enable it to better ferret out weaknesses and build on systemic strengths. The Democratic candidates should advance their reform proposals in the weeks ahead. The state’s at-risk children deserve better by the state, and now is the time to enact short-term reforms while laying the groundwork for a significant overhaul beginning in 2015.