Reaching beyond 'mediocre' at DCF

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PITTSFIELD — The woman hired three years ago to reform the state Department of Children and Families told lawmakers Monday that while a crisis has passed, "there is more work to do."

And, at least so far, enough money to pay for it.

Linda S. Spears, the DCF commissioner, was one of seven state officials to brief members of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Ways and Means at a hearing held at Berkshire Community College.

The legislative panel will convene eight hearings around Massachusetts as it works on the 2019 fiscal year budget. Monday's hearing brought leaders of human services agencies to Pittsfield for one of two statewide briefings on that subject. The other was held in Boston.

Gov. Charlie Baker proposes to allot nearly $1 billion to DCF in the year that begins July 1, as his administration presses improvements in protective care for children.

Spears joined the agency in January 2015 after being tapped the year before to investigate its shortcomings while working for the Child Welfare League. The state agency had been faulted for failing to protect children in several high-profile tragedies, including the death of a Fitchburg boy whose DCF social worker missed eight monthly visits.

Spears told Monday's panel, convened by State Sen. Adam Hinds and State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, that investments of $155 million in DCF have enabled it to add 357 social workers in the last three years as it worked "furiously" to improve its operations.

Hiring boosted the number of social workers by 16 percent.

"The quality of our decisions was mediocre at best," Spears said of the agency she inherited. "The caseload was out of control."

Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, thanked Spears for leading the reforms.

"When we don't get it right in the Department of Children and Families, oftentimes lives are lost," she said.

"It really has been a priority to reduce caseloads and improve oversight," said Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat. "There's recognition that they've made progress."

In November 2016, the average caseload for DCF staff was 19.5; that number fell to 18.87 in December 2017.

The department's staff works with 45,000 to 47,000 children today, Spears told lawmakers, and another 9,500 in foster care or adoptive or "congregate" placements.

The coming year looks better, in terms of her agency's budget, than the first one Spears faced in 2015.

Back then, amid Baker's call to cut 4,500 jobs from the state payroll stood in the way of Spears' goal of increasing the number of social workers — and reduce caseloads to improve DCF services.

The money gap meant Spears would have trouble introducing reforms she had proposed while still with the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League.

But over the last three years, DCF funding has enabled the agency not only to add social workers but revamp its operations and add a total of 600 jobs.

For the coming fiscal year, the agency is penciled in for a $20 million increase in the governor's budget, or about 2 percent.

"I think our staffing levels are in good shape," Spears told state Rep. Paul F. Tucker, D-Salem, when that former police chief asked about proposed 2019 funding.

Having stabilized the DCF operations, Spears said she worked to improve the agency's internal controls, so social workers did not make decisions alone. Each regional office now has its own management team, aided by the hiring of 92 managers, she said.

Other reports

The committee also heard from leaders of other human services agencies.

Toni A. Wolf, commissioner of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, was questioned by state Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams, about reductions in its federal funding.

Barrett said he didn't want to hear later that service cuts to clients were due to mismanagement.

"I will be all over you like a cheap suit," he said.

Paul Saner, chief of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, told lawmakers he is working to restructure his agency to find savings, in light of what appears to be a $1.55 million deficit in planned funding. He suggested that changes may close the gap.

"Services would need to be curtailed if there wasn't the solution we're working on," he said of officials in the Baker administration.

Heidi L. Reed, head of the Commission for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing, said her agency is being called upon more and more to help people communicate in health-care settings.

"That is driving demand," she told the committee through a sign language interpreter.

Of her agency's roughly 43 full-time equivalent employees, 33 percent are deaf or hard of hearing.

"So we walk the walk," Reed said.

Lawmakers also heard from Jeffery McCue of the Department of Transitional Assistance, Mary Truong of the Office for Refugees and Immigrants and Francisco Urena, secretary of the the Executive Office of Veterans Services.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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