State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier is on a House of Representatives panel reviewing the Department of Family and Children after the high profile Oliver case.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It isn't enough for the Legislature to take action only in the wake of crisis, says state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
The Pittsfield representative sits on the House oversight panel formed to review the Department of Children and Families in the aftermath of the high-profile Jeremiah Oliver case.
The 5-year-old Fitchburg boy has been missing since September and is feared dead. Three DCF workers were fired for mishandling the boy's case.
From her seat on the panel, Farley-Bouvier is calling for regular oversight meetings from now on so the state knows what is going on in the department and what policies need to be in place to fix issues. She is also looking to reduce caseloads for each worker and improved technology.
"The Legislature only seems to pay attention after some high-profile case. Every four or five years there is a high-profile case and we sweep in with oversight hearings. I think we should be having regular oversight hearings of the department and done in such a way, similar to how they have audits on the municipal level," Farley-Bouvier said on last week. "I don't think it is OK to just wait for the next crisis before you pay attention to the department, not this department. This department is way too important."
The Oliver case led Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo to call for an investigation, which is being held by the House members of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disability, of which Farley-Bouvier is a member, and the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick has called in the Child Welfare League of America to review DCF.
The House panel will review the Child Welfare League of America's information, focused on national practices and interviews and investigation into the department. The House is supplementing that information with its own research and talking to other organizations that would be affected by Legislative changes.
Farley-Bouvier said two bills filed more than a year ago, well before the Oliver case, called for a commission to oversee the DCF regularly. But Farley-Bouvier believes the Legislature should be doing the oversight, not a new commission.
"I think there are a lot more voices we need to hear. I think we need to hear from parents," Farley-Bouvier said. "I think we need to hear from the social workers themselves. I think we need to hear from alumni of the DCF system. I think we need to hear from teachers, superintendents and people in the medical community. There is a lot of voices left to hear. All of those perspectives are important in putting together a picture of it."
Already jumping out to Farley-Bouvier as the panel scrambles to enact legislation by the end of July, is the caseload numbers. The department has already reached an agreement limiting the number of cases a single worker has to 15 families, 28 children not more than 10 in placement. But "we're not even close to that," Farley-Bouvier says.
"I would expect that in the spring we'd have some legislation to change policy and I think in the budget process, there will be a lot of discussion around the department, advocating for funding," she said.
In the Berkshires, caseloads are on par with the rest of the state. But, the rest of the state does not have the transportation challenges, meaning the social workers here are spending extra time driving. Farley-Bouvier says when considering policies, she will advocate to make sure those setting policy keep the difference between rural and urban issues in mind.
"An additional issue for our caseworkers is when they have to do a home visit, they could be driving to North Adams and that just adds minutes to the day. It is not realistic to get all of these things done in a day," she said, telling the story of one local caseworker who had to drive to four distinct parts of the county for a single visit with all involved. "I've asked that when they consider caseloads, they should be considering the difference between a rural area and an urban area."
She also has concern that the caseload numbers are growing right now because of the Oliver case. She says now every report of neglect or abuse on a child under the age of 5 is being screened for a full investigation, adding to the overall number of cases.
"Because of the spotlight on the department, basically any report of neglect or abuse for a child 5 or under is basically being screened in for an investigation," she said. "My concern right now when I hear all this is the caseloads which we are already concerned about are going to be going up significantly. You can't have more and more investigations without impacting caseloads."
Farley-Bouvier said that since 2008, DCF has lost $100 million in funding and she will be advocating to boost the state's investment in the department. However, she is calling for specific conditions with money going to hire additional caseworkers and to upgrade the department's technology.
"In my mind, we want to support social workers so they can support families and the children are protected," she said. "You don't lose $100 million in funding without it impacting your ability to do your job."
Meanwhile the computer systems are "antiquated and cumbersome" and improved hardware and software would go a long way in helping the social workers do their job better.
For example, social workers often spend hours in court waiting, so improving mobile access to information will help them keep a closer eye on their clients. Case works should have tablets that can be taken on home visits, where they check in on a GPS system and document seamlessly.
"If we're making the investment, we'll have a say in how its spent," she said.
While the "crisis" originated out of Fitchburg, Farley-Bouvier says her panel will be implementing policy for the entire state, meaning the Berkshires will also be affected. Those policy decisions are urgent, she said, and the panel is hammering through its study in the coming month.
She says changes to DCF are particularly needed "because there is no room for error."