BOSTON >> Flanked by union officials, Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced two new policies for the Department of Children and Families, intended to improve procedures for tracking children and make sure social workers at the beleaguered agency do not miss any warning signs of abuse and neglect.
Through negotiations with SEIU Local 509 — the union that represents about 2,900 DCF social workers, supervisors and investigators — Baker's administration re-tooled the DCF intake policy and effected the department's first-ever supervisory policy.
"I know that to many people an intake policy that hasn't been updated in 20 years and a supervisory policy that's never been in place sounds pretty wonky," Baker said. "Part of the reason why these matter so much is because they provide guidance and a constant source of feedback between the folks on the ground, area and regional managers, and the central office team with respect to what's actually happening."
Among the changes to the intake policy, which Baker has previously referred to as the department's "front door," are:
• A requirement that non-emergency reports of abuse or neglect be reviewed in one business day rather than three, as the policy had previously required;
• A mandated review of all information about the child and caregiver's prior involvement with DCF;
• A requirement that the department request from law enforcement information on police responses to the residence of any child involved in a report of abuse or neglect;
• The introduction of screening teams of social workers, supervisors and managers in all 29 DCF area offices to review new reports of abuse in open cases, and investigate reports of three or more incidents in one year and other reports indicating elevated concern.
"For years, front line social workers, investigators and supervisors have pushed for true reform at the Department of Children and Families, for changes that would bring about a more common-sense approach for our child protection efforts," Peter MacKinnon, chapter president of SEIU Local 509, said. "The completion of these critical policies and reforms marks an important first step toward accomplishing these goals and represents a major milestone for our agency as well."
DCF's "two-track" screening process will be eliminated by the new policy and replaced with a system in which all reports that are "screened in" will be assigned for a response by an investigation-trained response worker who interviews parents, caregivers and other children at a home that's been the subject of an abuse or neglect report.
The supervisory policy, which DCF Commissioner Linda Spears said had been negotiated in the past but never agreed to or implemented, will require that every case be discussed at least once a month to promote collaborative case management.
The policy also clarifies circumstances that require DCF supervisors to consult with clinical specialists, lawyers or DCF managers to review complex cases.
"With these policies, we are giving our workers a standardized playbook for case practice, decision-making and oversight," Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. "Intake will be faster and more consistent, and there will be collaboration on cases with supervisors and managers so cases do not fall through the cracks."
The new policies will take full effect on Feb. 1, 2016, Sudders said. In the meantime, the department will begin updating its IT systems and training employees in the new policies.
Several high-profile cases have put DCF under scrutiny, including the 2013 disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose body was later found along a highway in Sterling, a 2-year-old girl who died this summer in foster care in Auburn and the case of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma after he was allegedly abused and starved by his father.
Baker, Sudders, Spears and MacKinnon all referred to the new policies announced Tuesday as the "first step" in addressing the issues at DCF. With more policy reforms planned for March, Baker said he is confident that the department will improve its performance and experience fewer tragedies.
"I believe that if we do this well, and we need to do it well ... if we do the work associated with following through and delivering on this, I do believe we will do a better job as a Commonwealth at providing the kind of protection and support for these kids and their families that they deserve," he said. "And I do believe that will have an impact in a positive way on tragedies."