- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration cited progress Monday in overhauling the state’s troubled child welfare agency, while acknowledging that caseload for overburdened social workers remained too high.

Baker last year ordered a number of steps taken at the Department of Children and Families, which has been under intense scrutiny in recent years after the deaths of several children whose families had been under state supervision.

DCF has since implemented a series of reforms including a revised intake policy, the hiring of the department’s first-ever medical director, and criminal background checks for all members of prospective foster care families, the administration said.

While most state agencies have been instructed to hold the line on spending, DCF has been in a relative hiring frenzy, adding 170 new employees and posting more than 330 social worker positions since September. At the same time, previously high attrition rates among current workers has been stabilizing in recent months, officials said.

Still, the average weighted caseload remains at about 21 children per social worker in the agency, above the state’s maximum target of 18 per worker, according to Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, who said additional staff cannot come aboard fast enough.

“Our existing social workers have not yet experienced relief on caseload,” Sudders said. “We can’t put kids at risk of abuse and neglect on a wait list while we hire up.”

Leaders of the union representing social workers met with Baker, Sudders and DCF Commissioner Linda Spears on Monday during an annual Statehouse advocacy day held by the National Association of Social Workers.

Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU Local 509, praised Baker for committing additional staff and financial resources to the agency and replacing outdated procedures that have led to chronic failures in the past. But MacKinnon said he also told the governor that improvements so far were only “the tip of the iceberg” and a caseload crisis persists.

“I don’t think we are in a place where anyone would feel comfortable calling the agency fixed,” said MacKinnon, who appeared with Baker and state officials at a news conference following the meeting.

Training for employees on the revised state policies has also been spotty, MacKinnon added, and some managers appear to lack a solid understanding of the new expectations.

“We still have an enormous amount of work to do and the job of how our state cares for its most vulnerable children is probably never done,” Baker told reporters. “But we are investing in and I believe we are building with the help of many others a department we think can keep kids safe and makes keeping kids safe its highest priority.”

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