Child welfare official quits; more changes sought

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BOSTON (AP) - The resignation of the head of Massachusetts’ beleaguered child welfare agency Tuesday will not by itself solve many of the problems facing a department reeling from the recent deaths of three children, legislators and child welfare specialists said.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who had previously defended the commissioner, Olga Roche, and resisted calls to remove her, said he accepted her resignation “with some sadness” after determining she had lost the confidence of both the public and many in her own agency, the Department of Children and Families.

“With some 33 years of experience in social services, Commissioner Roche has the expertise to lead this agency,” Patrick said. “But it’s clear … that she can no longer command the trust of the public or the confidence of her line staff.”

Erin Deveney, who became the agency’s deputy commissioner for operations March 31, was tapped to head DCF until a permanent replacement is named.

But the leadership change isn’t enough to fix “real systemic problems” at the department, the executive director of the independent Children’s League of Massachusetts, Erin Bradley, wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to both Patrick and the state secretary of health and human services.

Noting that funding for direct services to children and families had been cut $131 million over the past seven years, Bradley wrote, “The funding gap has created too many cracks for our children to fall through.”

The agency’s next commissioner should have an advanced degree in social work, extensive knowledge of the state’s child welfare system and a strong working relationship with the Legislature, among other attributes, Bradley said.

Intense scrutiny of the agency began in December after authorities said that Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose family was under agency supervision, had not been seen by relatives in months. A body found off a state highway this month was identified as Jeremiah’s. The boy’s mother and her boyfriend had previously pleaded not guilty to charges connected to the case.

Three DCF employees were fired and a fourth disciplined after an investigation revealed missed social worker visits and other failed opportunities to engage with the family.

More recently, the agency said a fax it was sent by police in Grafton concerning possible harm to 4-week-old Aliana Lavigne, who later died, was misplaced for six days.

On Tuesday, Patrick faulted police for not calling the agency directly to report the information, but added the fax should have been acted on immediately.

“Somebody in that agency read that fax and didn’t deal with it,” the governor said. He later clarified that he did not know who might have seen the fax when it arrived.

A state form used by police and other people who have mandates to report suspicions of child abuse requires that the reports be made both verbally and in writing. Following the recent Grafton incident, the agency updated the form to emphasize the need for oral communication and added phone numbers for area offices and a 24-hour hotline.

In the third recent case, 2-week-old Bailey Irish of Fitchburg, whose family was being monitored by the department, was brought to the hospital Saturday morning by her parents and pronounced dead a short time later.

Authorities say the deaths of the two infants remain under investigation.

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