Changes at Massachusetts child welfare agency proving difficult
BOSTON — Training in new procedures at the Department of Children and Families has been inconsistent and social worker caseloads "remain at crisis levels," the union that represents DCF social workers said Monday after meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker and others to assess progress at the embattled child welfare agency.
About two months after the intake and supervisory policies announced by the governor in November to better protect children in the care of DCF took effect, social workers working with the children and families served by the state have seen an uneven rollout, SEIU Local 509's president told Baker, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and DCF Commissioner Linda Spears at a meeting Monday morning.
"Training on this new policy has been inconsistent at best and inadequate at worst. Some of the trainers don't seem to have a solid understanding of the policy reforms we've worked so hard to institute, and incorrect information has been given on more than one occasion," Peter MacKinnon, chapter president of SEIU Local 509, said. "Of equal concern is that some local managers are having difficulty understanding and implementing the new policies."
The policy reforms that took effect Feb. 1 are intended to improve procedures for tracking children and to make sure that state social workers do not miss any warning signs of abuse or neglect.
But if they're not properly implemented and if there is insufficient oversight of changes at DCF, the "policies are only as good as the paper they're written on," MacKinnon said.
Baker called the process of making changes at DCF "at times a grinding and difficult one" and said meetings like the one he held Monday morning are essential to getting the changes right. He said his administration is "fully aware of the work ahead" and will continue to work with the Legislature and the union to build "a department that can keep kids safe and makes keeping kids safe its highest priority."
Spears said inconsistency may be a result of accelerated implementation of the policies and that additional training will take place in the future.
"We rolled out really fast the new policies in an effort to begin the change process quickly," she said. "What that means is that we had training that was done very, very quickly in January and February that also meant we knew we needed to go back and have more training as we go forward."
The weighted caseload ratio for DCF social workers remains well above the administration's and union's goal of 18:1, Sudders said. In January, the average caseload ratio ranged between regional offices from 18.66:1 to 23.59:1 with an average caseload ratio of 20.99:1, she said.
But hiring is up at the agency, with a net increase of 170 full-time employees since July 2015, and the Baker administration has directed additional funding to the child protection agency to allow it to hire even more social workers, the governor said.
"Systemic reforms of this kind of magnitude must balance the urgency of action needed with the deliberativeness sustainability requires," Sudders said. "As we focus the work for the next few months, we must redouble our efforts on recruitment and fine-tuning our training efforts."
The Baker administration has proposed a $938.2 million budget for DCF in fiscal 2017, which would represent a $30.5 million increase over the current budget. Additionally, a supplemental budget currently being ironed out by the Legislature would direct another $15 million to the department.
"Since taking office, reforming how DCF does its job, how it is supported by the administration and by state government has been a priority for us," Baker said. "We still have an enormous amount of work to do and the job of improving how the state cares for its most vulnerable children is probably never done."
Baker, Sudders, Spears and MacKinnon all referred to the new policies as the "first step" in addressing the issues at DCF.
"We have put a series of critical, long-term fixes in place, hiring is on the upswing, resources are being appropriated, and the re-writing of long outdated policies to guide the work we do is happening. But I don't believe we're in a place where anyone would feel comfortable calling the agency fixed," MacKinnon said. "We've come a long way so far and we have an even longer road ahead."
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