Union Claims MA DCF Employees are Overworked, Not Underperforming

Monday, December 23, 2013

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Central to the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver is a debate over the caseworkers responsible for his safety: were they overworked, or just not doing their job? The commonwealth’s Department of Children and Families has been quick to focus blame squarely on the workers in question. But the union sees a much larger issue: workers overloaded with cases, despite repeated promises to reduce workloads.

At first glance, the caseworker in question seems guilty of a severe neglect of duty. The 5-year-old Fitchburg boy was reported missing last week after not having been seen since September. The caseworker assigned to him made her last formal visit to the home in May. She and a support administrator have since been fired.

But according to Jason Stephany, “this tragedy is about more than just one worker and one manager.” Stephany is a spokesperson for Services Employees International Union Local 509, and sees the tragedy as a manifestation of a “caseload crisis” at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, and a sadly avoidable one.

“North Central (the office tasked with handling Oliver’s case) has around 70 or 75 case workers. Since May, between half and two thirds of them have filed grievances complaining of their increased workload.”

Among them, the unnamed caseworker fired in the wake of Oliver’s disappearance, at least according to several reports citing anonymous sources.

“This was not about caseloads,” says Cayenne Isakson, The DCF’s public relations director, in an e-mailed response. “It was a failure by the social worker to do their most basic duties and check on the children and families. And the supervisor also failed to hold the case worker accountable. As a result both have been terminated.”

“This social worker’s caseload was about average.”

DCF Commissioner Olga I. Roche

That’s precisely the problem, says Stephany.

Referring to the North Central office, he says “They have 30 workers with at least 20 cases each. One year ago, there were 8 workers with 20 cases. It's trending in the wrong direction. Massachusetts agreed to take action to get caseworkers loads down to 12-15 cases in July. Yet, cases continue to go up. The North Central Office, where Jeremiah Oliver was from, the office ranks 2nd in caseloads per worker."

Twelve to fifteen cases is a federal guideline for what is considered an acceptable workload for child services workers.

“And every month, between half and two-thirds of the staff file grievances,” indicating that not only is an increased workload par for the course, but lodging formal complaints about it is as well.

Marcia Graves Roddy, the director of the North Central branch of the DCF in Leominster, did not return several requests for an interview. A staffer said Graves Roddy is currently not allowed to talk about the case, but declined to say who placed that order.

The DCF finds itself under increasing scrutiny, especially director Olga I. Roche, who, despite having the public support of Gov. Deval Patrick, is beginning to hear rumblings of calls for her resignation.

“Commissioner Roche is reviewing all aspects of this case and sharing information with law enforcement and other agencies regularly to assist with efforts to find Jeremiah. That remains our top priority,” says Isakson. “The DCF shares the same goals of having manageable caseloads to help our social workers succeed.”

“The governor says people need to be held accountable” says Stephany. “Well, there are people further up the food chain than a caseworker and an administrator that have known about these problems and have spent months and years not addressing them.”

“This is not a new issue to commissioner. She was present in July. She heard directly from caseworkers in this very office. Yet it's only gotten worse. Here we are. She did nothing to address the issue. Now a child is feared dead.”


The solution? More money, according to Stephany. “The most important thing is ensuring funding, to ensure adequate staffing levels. “

When asked if the legislature is adequately funding their department, Isakson’s only response was “In the FY14 General Appropriations Act (GAA), the Legislature appropriated $778,991,325 for the Department of Children and Families.”

This figure shows a roughly 5% increase over the funding level from the 2011 fiscal year, indicating that it a tragedy the scope of Jeremiah Oliver might have been necessary for any significant change to occur.

“If you ask administration, they'll say that the legislature is not doing enough to adequately fund the department. Yet, the legislature will say that the department isn't prioritizing the funding they do have.”

When asked how the department might currently be prioritizing funding, he says "I can't speak to that directly." quickly adding, "it's gotten worse not better. 30 workers with at least 20 cases. Last year it was 8. Draw your own conclusions."