After So Many Child Deaths, Massachusetts Makes Major Changes

by | November 18, 2015

By Matt Stout

Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled a slate of overhauled policies for the state's beleaguered child welfare department yesterday, eliminating the two-tiered track that divided cases by perceived risk, mandating background checks for the first time and requiring monthly reviews of all cases.

The changes to supervisory oversight and the intake process that workers at the Department of Children and Families use to vet new cases follows a wave of high-profile child deaths and injuries that rocked the agency over the past two years.

Baker called it the first "end-to-end" overhaul in two decades, to be phased in through February.

"To deal with the kinds of circumstances and situations these folks deal with every single day and having to do without having a playbook ... for so long, in some respects, that's the most disappointing aspect of all," he said yesterday.

Among the changes:

--DCF will do away with its tiered system that separated cases into high-risk and low-risk categories. The process has come under fire as questions arose about whether officials were properly assigning the appropriate level of risk facing a child. Baker called the change "one of the best and most important things" in the overhaul. "Now, every family will be treated the same," said Peter MacKinnon, president of the union that represents DCF workers. "Everyone gets the same attention, the same investigation, and then decisions are based on data in front of you, not on speculation."

--Every person in a household over 15 years old will be subject to a Criminal Offender Record Information check, as well as checks through sex offender and national criminal history databases. The practices have been ongoing, but CORI checks only previously happened in 75 to 80 percent of cases, state health officials said.

--All workers will review each of their cases with a supervisor once a month. Supervisors within the department's 29 area offices will be required to spend at least one hour per week providing "individual supervision" to a social worker, to ensure high-risk cases are getting the proper attention.

The state expects to complete its audit into the DCF cases handled by a social worker cited in the botched 2013 investigation involving slain baby Bella Bond by Thanksgiving.

"We'll make decisions about what needs to happen after we do that," said Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders.

The caseworker was a focus of a scathing report last month by the Office of the Child Advocate, which blasted DCF for not making sure Rachelle D. Bond could properly care for her daughter in 2013 -- two years before the little girl was found dead on a Winthrop beach.

The 2013 report "cut-and-pasted" information from a separate assessment seven years earlier and was "inaccurate," the report said.

(c)2015 the Boston Herald