In 2015, after a damning state audit exposing the Department’s failure to adequately track and report injuries and abuse of children who were under DCF supervision was released, DCF was proclaimed to be “in crisis” by Commissioner Linda Spears. The state has since developed new policies and hired new staff. There are now 101 more managers and 341 more social workers than in September 2015. Nearly the entire social worker staff is licensed, compared to around half the staff that were licensed in 2015. While caseloads are still higher than child protection workers would like, they have improved. On December 11, 2017 Governor Charlie Baker wrote, “At a minimum, it would be fair to say that the DCF of 2017/2018 is nothing like the DCF of 2014/2015. Nothing. Stating that ‘victimization of children in DCF’s care continues to occur unnoticed by the agency’ … is not just unfortunate and inaccurate — it’s irresponsible,” in a sharply worded letter rebuking the audit….Yet, in Fiscal year 2017 there were 76 deaths of children under state care or supervision, 25 reports of near-fatalities and nine serious bodily injuries.
These number increased from 2015- 2018. But Baker clearly wants to end the conversation.
So why, with continued efforts from Department officials and policy makers, is the system so tragically broken?
Over the past month, I have spoken to ongoing caseworkers working on the front lines of the daily battle to keep Massachusetts’ most vulnerable children safe from neglect and abuse, foster parents currently doing their best to navigate the system and care for children removed from unsafe homes, biological parents who are currently or have been consumers of the system, and the children who have been stuck in the middle of it all. I’ve reviewed numerous documents, audits, reports and policies to take a look inside the inner workings of Massachusetts’ most controversial government agency. Through the countless hours of interviews and chats I have conducted one thing is abundantly clear – the blame lies not solely with the Department and its’ employees, nor does it fall squarely on the shoulders of consumers – it’s a complicating mess of parents who fail their children, and a state agency that continues to overreach.
What the workers have to say may surprise you.(To allow for candid conversation, the workers interviewed asked their names abbreviated to first initial to maintain anonymity)
Even with caseloads cut by reform, workers are overwhelmed by caseloads averaging 3 more than mandated by new regulation and removal rates that have spike 56% since 2012.
Policies and parenting standards vary widely from office to office, and sometimes unit to unit.
Workers are contending with a serious shortage of foster homes.
The majority of workers interviewed felt little to no support from upper level management.
Cases stay open and drain resources longer than most workers feel necessary or helpful, assessments are lengthy, time consuming and convoluted.
Q. How long have you been working for the Department?
D: I have been working for the Department as an ongoing caseworker for over 5 years.
J: I’ve worked for the Department for 2 years.
S: I just left the Department after working there for 10 years.
T: I’ve worked here for a little over a year.
Q. What do you feel are the biggest barriers to doing your job as of now?
D: The caseloads are still so overwhelming, At the peak (before changes were finally made) I had 28-32 cases. Thankfully changes were made and I believe on average we are now down to about 16 to 18 cases (15 is supposed to be the max) each. While it’s a great improvement, it’s still a few too many really. When I say 15 cases, that’s 15 families we have to see each member of each month. This could be a fully intact family where we get to see all family members at once, in one house all at the same time. These are few and far between. Generally, we have to see each parent at different homes because they aren’t together. If kids are in foster placements and are separated, we have to see them at each of their foster homes. All foster parents must be met with each month as well. So for families of 6-8 (including adults) you can see where that can be difficult. Most of our families have at least 4 family members. The numbers were supposed to have are 15 cases, no more than 28 children and no more than 10 of those children in any kind of placement. Let me assure you, I’ve never had only 28 kids on my caseload. I think my lowest has been 33 and that was amazing since at the peak I had about 49.
J: Turnover. We can’t keep workers long enough to really even help the caseload issue. In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve seen 4 workers come and go just in my unit. And assessments take forever to do, and focus on so many different things that either parents can’t control, or we can’t help with, or just don’t make for an unsafe home, that there’s a lot of room to miss things that do.
S: Policy is too subjective and the communication with supervisors can be terrible. We generally just get an email or told during staff meetings what the new policies are, not much support past that. We have statewide policy, but every office is different with how they follow those policies. Working with another office during a transfer of a case can be a nightmare when they haven’t followed policy, or if they’re following a policy more strictly than our office does. I’ve gotten cases where we have to inform the parents that we can’t do something the old office was doing, or visa versa, depending on who we’re dealing with at any given time. Even from unit to unit sometimes, the standards are different. Sometimes from worker to worker. It’s hard to manage expectations with parents who have a shifting set of expectations, and even harder to try and explain why they’re shifting. Until every single office is running the same, things won’t get better, and I don’t know if they ever will. I remember having a client family who allowed their 9 year old son to play outside unsupervised on their street. The office they were coming from was pretty inner city so they elevated the concerns based on this factor. For our office, it was literally of no concern at all – a very common, and safe practice for the area.
T: We don’t have enough social work technicians. Those are the workers who help with transporting clients, supervising visits, and making collateral calls to health/social service providers, schools and law enforcement agencies. We only have one tech for each cluster (group of 5 units), so we only get to use her once a week. We could get so much more done with a full time tech for each unit.
1. Understanding The Intake And Assessment Process
D: We now have 3 options for investigation decisions: Supported, unsupported and substantiated concern. The last one means we can’t legally support but we’re worried and we’ll just pass this nonsense onto an on going worker for them to deal with. Substantiated concern and support open for the assessments. What people don’t know though is they can refuse to allow us into their homes and can refuse to meet at all, can refuse to sign releases and we have no legal grounds to force them to cooperate. If they refuse too much we just talk. With our lawyers. If we don’t have enough cause to remove kids we have to close the case. And (the)45 days (assessment period) is a joke. That’s 45 business days (usually 2 months total), but it usually takes us closer to 4 months to really finish them and get them approved.
J: But the scope is so broad, and we only have 45 days to finish. Depending on the perception of the investigator as well as her supervisor, just about everyone has a reason to support a case lurking around, or at least open a substantiated concern. We’re not out to rip families apart, but I could see how in some cases things could really go awry in that way. We have to look into so many facets of a family’s functioning.
S: We’re assessing families based on some factors that they can’t control, like community supports or the safety of their community. We can’t make friends or family for parents, or help with childcare very much even, we just don’t have the resources. And with a family with low levels of community engagement, especially with no prior involvement, we have to rely so much more on the information the family is willing to give us. The worst the parent, the less forthright they’re inclined to be – and then what? I’d rather spend my time working out whether or not a kid is getting abused at home than deciding whether a mother or father drinks too much, or if their pot smoking is problematic (that’s a whole different issue in and of itself.)
T: They can take up to 3, 4 months to complete. They cover so much that really doesn’t make or break a safe home, that there’s a lot we could potentially miss that does. Most parents aren’t going to come out and say they smoke crack cocaine with their kids in the house, and most kids aren’t going to rat their parents out, for that matter. But that’s probably more important to know than whether or not the kid feels supported using a different pronoun. Not that we don’t want kids to feel loved and supported, but, you know….priorities. We can’t fix every problem in every home. But we get blamed for every big problem that we miss.
2. Upper Level Management.
T: We do all the leg work, interact with the children, the parents, and all the collaterals. But we can’t make any real case decisions without supervisor approval. I don’t always feel listened to. No one has any time.
D:If a supervisor doesn’t agree if we say it shouldn’t stay open, we have to keep it open anyway, so it’s never our decision. Even though we work with the families, and they rarely know the cases unless they are problem cases that are constantly at risk for removals/runaways/behavioral children. We’re supposed to get an hour of supervision a week. I can’t tell you the last time mine was a full hour because it gets interrupted at least 10 times before we just give up. Don’t get me wrong. Any time I have questions or concerns I email my sup immediately and if we have to meet, we do. But a lot of other workers I know have gone 6-8 weeks without even sitting and discussing their cases with their supervisors.
J: Supervisors don’t care about the workers.
D: I get cases where a mom used heroin before she knew she was pregnant, then gets clean and sober in treatment and can provide clean tests for the rest of the pregnancy as well as months and months after birth and we still have supervisors telling us we can’t close because they don’t have 18-24 months clean yet. Even though this mom has done everything we ask of her and there’s been no concerns for a year. Or it’s a case that has been in before and even though the parents have done everything we asked and no concerns for 6-12 months, we are told to stay open. While in some cases yes that’s a good idea, the majority of cases should be given the chance to survive without us instead of us waiting for them to screw up so our supervisors can say “see. Told you we needed to stay open”.
3. Lack Of Resources
D:Another big big big issue is we don’t have daycare all the time. Unless a kid is in a permanent placement, they don’t get daycare and we have to keep the kids in the office all day sometimes for weeks on end until permanent placement is found. Do you know how much work we can get done when we have one or 3 kids that we have to occupy at our desks? For 8 hours?!! Not much. Oh also, for workers on hotline (the emergency after hours people), if they remove kids overnight and don’t have any foster homes available, they have to bring the kids to the hospital and sit with them there in the ER until the next morning when they can go to school or a foster home is found.
T: We just don’t have enough foster homes. No one wants the tiny pay for the huge responsibility. Kids get stuck in my office, or the ER until we can find a home.
J: I just don’t have enough time to work with foster parents, to attend foster care reviews, to support the foster parents as their child’s placement was discussed. If they call struggling with behaviors, and I’ve already been out for the month, a lot of the time it has to be “I’ll see you next month”. We don’t have enough techs, we don’t have enough manpower. We don’t have enough homes.
S: I can’t help families with housing – our office has a housing specialist, but he’s there pretty much to give advice, we don’t have funding. Families will sometimes self-sabotage their case when it’s going to close, because we can only offer daycare when a case is open and for 1-2 months after it closes. Housing, childcare so parents can work…this is all basic care stuff. This is part of parenting, and there’s nothing we can do. I don’t want to waste resources on parents who won’t use them properly, anyway. But it kills me to have so few to offer to the parents who will.
D:Housing assistance, we have one specialist in our central area that goes between the 4 Worcester county offices. He provides us with info but there’s almost nothing we can do to help get housing any more. The only time we can help with housing really is when housing is the ONLY reason we haven’t reunified. Then we have a special bypass to get that fixed. We can’t even write letters for clients anymore saying they need housing. Only letters we can give are when we reunify we can give one stating “child will be reunified with so and so on this date and will reside with parent full time”.
4. Case Loads
D: Now,not only are we to see each of these people in their residence (as long as safety is not an issue) we also have to provide supervised visits every week (per policy). This could mean a worker from Worcester where I work could have to go to Boston to pick up one kid, Lawrence to pick up another and then Webster for another kid then get them all to the office for a one hour visit each with one parent then the other if they’re not together or a one hour visit for both if the parents are together. This kind of visit takes up the workers entire day for 1-2 hours of actual work. It also means kids are in cars for HOURS for a lousy 1 hour visit. It also means they’re missing school every single week. Sometimes if parents agree, we can do a 2 hour visit every other week to cut down on school missed and traveling for them. If parents miss visits or are late several times, their frequency of visits gets cut down to every other week, then once a month and then it’s brought up in court because that messes with kids so hard. It’s incredibly upsetting to me as a worker to have to tell a kid their mom or dad isn’t coming to see them. I have 4 cases with kids in foster care. That’s usually 2 days a week that I’m only doing visits for these kids. Were also required to be in the office once a week for our “duty day”. Generally this is supposed to be used to get your case notes in, follow up with calls, supervision. But about 60% of the time, we’re responding to emergencies for our units. Which makes it hard to stay up to date. If you’re following, that takes up 3 of my 5 work days. The other 2 I cram in as many home visits as I can, as many meetings with providers that are providing in home services (usually to prevent a removal or to make sure kids transitioning back home are doing well). Oh and let’s not forget about court days. For every case we have in foster care, we have a court date every 3 months. These days we show up either at 9 or 11) depending on what stage and court you go to) and sometimes we’re there until 230/3. They want us to use our Ipads but we’re either out with everyone else waiting so that violates confidentiality not to mention someone is constantly walking up to us to talk about the case or were in courtrooms without service. So makes it pretty hard to be productive there. Those days are basically a waste for all involved as 90% of the time we just get a new date for another 3 months out and they only ask the social workers for updates maybe 50% of the time. I’ve spent 6 hours in court to literally say to the judge “mom and dad still haven’t addressed their substance abuse or parenting classes(what a joke those are) so we have no progress your honor” and then we leave.
T: The caseloads are better, but not where they need to be by far. There’s not enough time in a month for everyone I need to see.
S: Not only do we need more workers, we need less cases open. The stress it puts on a parent to have strangers lurking around waiting for them to fail must be unbearable – I suspect in some cases where we overshoot the length of time we’re involved it leads to some backslide. When kids are being seriously neglected, or physically or sexually abused, we need to remove. And the reunification process needs to stick to the federal guidelines – we can’t have them drag out.
D:I would say at least 30-40% of my cases could close out right now and be OK. I’m not saying they wouldn’t ever come back to us but they would definitely be able to manage without us for a good amount of time. And by letting them try on their own, when they do return to us we can better assess why they returned and what worked/what didn’t. By not giving them a chance, we’re just waiting for them to fuck up and I can’t imagine how much anxiety that causes them
T: I’d say about 30% of my cases could close out right now and manage alright. There are definitely plenty of families that should not have kids ever, but the ones who do work with us do OK. No family is ever going to be perfect, but all we can hope for is that the home is safe with basic care.
J: I’d say 25% of my cases could provide basic needs for their kids without us. That’s all we can ask for. Outside of that, we’re just spinning our wheels, and taking precious focus away from the other 75% that can’t right now.
But one the thing that each and every worker had to say, in some form, unilaterally?
“Thank you for asking. No one ever does.”