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Mass. governor weighs outside review of welfare agency

A “fresh set of eyes” might be necessary to review Massachusetts’s child welfare agency in the wake of the disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, Gov. Deval Patrick said yesterday.

Patrick said one goal is to make sure that the Department of Children and Families is following best practices when providing services.

“It may be that we need a third party to come and give us a look, so we’re thinking that through,” Patrick said. “This is not a job for amateurs.”

Patrick said one way of assessing the agency’s performance is to call on “some group or agency that is knowledgeable, that has some real gravitas and experience in this area that might help us bring a fresh set of eyes.” He didn’t give additional details.

Patrick also continued to defend DCF Commissioner Olga Roche and said the majority of social workers do good work under difficult circumstances.

The agency recently came under fire after the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, whose family was under DCF supervision. Jeremiah hasn’t been seen since September and is presumed dead.

Three workers at the agency’s Leominster office were fired, while the boy’s mother and her boyfriend face charges.

On Tuesday, Roche met with the Northbridge superintendent of schools to discuss concerns that the agency’s local office had failed to respond to school officials’ apprehension about the well-being of some children.

Patrick said that many of those concerns were allayed by the meeting and some had to do with new teachers being unfamiliar with what social workers were permitted to disclose under confidentiality rules.

The administration released a follow-up letter from Superintendent Nancy Spitulnik in which she described the meeting with Roche as “very productive” and said the schools now have “a better understanding of how the department operates, including the screening and intake process.”

“It was clear that we are all committed to helping and supporting our students and families in whatever way we can,” Spitulnik said.

Demands for changes at the agency continue to mount, however.

State Sen. Mike Barrett yesterday called on the Patrick administration to disclose complete data on staffing at key human services agencies such as DCF – including the total number of staff in the 2007 fiscal year compared with the current fiscal year.

The Lexington Democrat and Senate chairman of the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities said he wants to understand how budget cuts may have affected services for agencies under his committee’s review like DCF.

“It’s becoming harder to suppose we’re dealing with just a few bad apples rather than a systemic problem,” Barrett said in a written statement.

Also yesterday, Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker called on the Patrick administration to release data including average social worker caseloads, the last time each caseworker documented a visit with every child under their care, and the total number of abuse reports filed in the past six months and the outcome of each.

Another gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Martha Coakley, on Tuesday proposed creating a separate child protection division within DCF to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect with a sole focus on the safety of the children involved.

Coakley said the department’s dual mandate – both to protect children while also strengthening families – can create tensions for workers.

Patrick said he doesn’t believe there’s an inherent conflict.

“The interest of the social workers is doing right by the kids,” he said. “If that means keeping the families together, great. If it doesn’t, then there are other interventions.”

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