- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Overwhelming caseloads and ineffective management of Massachusetts’ child welfare agency have set up social workers to fail, according to a critical new review released Wednesday by the state’s Child Advocate.

Gail Garinger’s interim report on the Department of Children and Families, based in part on interviews and focus groups with managers, supervisors and caseworkers, portrays a management system unable to provide proper support for employees tasked with keeping children away from abuse and neglect.

A 1986 labor agreement was supposed to cap the weighted caseload for individual workers at 18, but the report said the average caseload stands at 21 and the average number of active cases per worker has increased 35 percent since 2011.

“The current situation sets up the workforce to fail as they cannot handle the volume of cases they are assigned without sacrificing quality,” the report said.

As a result, morale among workers is plummeting to the point where one veteran caseworker told a focus group that it had never been worse in that person’s 38 years with the agency.

“The weaknesses in the current management system leave the workforce overwhelmed and stressed, and more vulnerable to the vicarious trauma inherent in child protection work, the advocate said.

The state’s 2015 budget called for the Office of the Child Advocate to conduct an emergency review of the agency in the aftermath of high-profile cases involving families under DCF supervision, including the disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy. Jeremiah Oliver’s body was later found alongside a state highway.

A consultant, the Ripples Group, contracted with the advocate’s office to perform the management review. A final report is due in November.

The interim report did not single out any managers for criticism and in fact noted that the agency during periods of past budget cuts has sacrificed its management and administrative capacity to retain more front-line staff. This has resulted in management being spread too thin and a loss of vital experience at the agency, the report said, a situation likely to worsen after 106 managers opted for an early retirement program in state government this year.

Garinger’s findings come on the heels of an internal DCF report that found the agency failed to protect a 7-year-old boy from Hardwick who fell into a coma after police said he was beaten and starved by his father.

Gov. Charlie Baker said he found it encouraging that the advocate’s report reflected many of the agency’s findings in the Hardwick case.

“That makes me believe we are heading down the right path, we just need to move quickly and capably along that path,” Baker told reporters Wednesday.

DCF had already implemented recommendations including the hiring of a 300 new social workers and a $35.5 million increase in this year’s budget, Andrea Grossman, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement.

The advocate’s report also noted that its recent annual survey pointed to some encouraging signs, including a downward trend in cases of reported physical abuse.

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