Gov. Charlie Baker announced today system-wide reforms in the troubled state Department of Children and Families – including policies to better assess safety risks to vulnerable children from the first calls of trouble to the closure of a case.
Among changes, many to be implemented this fall, Baker announced that caseworkers will carry out criminal background checks and search for 911 calls to a family’s home as part of the intake process when a social worker reviews an allegation of abuse or neglect.
The Baker administration also plans to re-examine its two-track child welfare system that divides children into lower and higher-risk groups – a state program launched in 2009 and criticized by some child advocates and social workers for not sufficiently protecting all troubled children. He also announced plans to reinstate “social worker technician” positions to provide non-clinical support to families, including driving children to appointments. The state also will work to retain and recruit more social workers and address high caseloads.
“DCF’s fundamental purpose is to keep kids safe,’’ Baker said at a state house press conference. “DCF often struggles with mission confusion [but] not from this point forward.”
The governor’s announcement comes after a slew of troubling stories about the system’s inability to protect vulnerable children, including 2-year-old Bella Bond of Dorchester whose body was found in June in a trash bag on Deer Island and who had earlier received services from state social workers. The announcement also comes a week after the New England Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that 110 children died of abuse and neglect between 2009 and 2013, about a third of whom had received state services.
The investigation, titled “Out of the shadows,” showed many missed opportunities to protect children in a system fraught with problems and unable to learn from past tragedies. The Center gave the first in-depth look at the troubled lower- and higher-risk intake system and, among other findings, showed that state social workers were not required to do criminal background checks on all parents when assessing abuse and neglect complaints.
Baker’s announcement was met with guarded enthusiasm by the state social worker’s union, whose leaders joined Baker at the press conference.
Peter MacKinnon, DCF chapter president of the SEIU union local 509, said that social workers for years have pushed for “meaningful reforms,” and are hopeful Baker will come through in making needed changes. He said that unlike in the past, Baker has set fixed timelines for improvements and pledged to provide needed resources.
“Time will always tell,” MacKinnon told NECIR. “It feels different this time.”