When the Massachusetts General Court convened its Department of Children & Families oversight hearing this week, front-line social workers at the agency were among a small group called to testify. Local 509′s Legislative Director, Chris Condon, joined longtime social worker and DCF Chapter President, Peter MacKinnon to share both their concerns and suggestions for reform with members of the Post Audit & Oversight and Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities committees. Full remarks are included below, along with visuals.
TESTIMONY OF CHRIS CONDON & PETER MACKINNON, SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION, LOCAL 509
As prepared for the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight January 23, 2014
CHRIS CONDON, LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR
Thank you to Chairman Linsky and Chairwoman Khan for the opportunity to appear before you today – and to the members and staff of both committees for your attention to the important issues impacting at-risk youth throughout the commonwealth.
For the record, my name is Chris Condon, and I am the Legislative Director for Service Employees International Union Local 509. Our union represents more than 17,000 human service and education professionals across Massachusetts – including 2,800 front-line social workers, investigators and support staff at the Department of Children & Families. With me today is Peter MacKinnon, a veteran social worker and supervisor who serves as president of the union’s DCF Chapter.
I want to thank both committees, Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray both for hosting this oversight hearing and engaging in a vital conversation about the reforms and investments needed to keep our most vulnerable children safe. As a father of two young children, it is difficult to wrap my head around what may have happened in the case of Jeremiah Oliver. On both a personal and professional level, I applaud your efforts today and those going forward – and pledge that front-line workers at DCF will continue to work as your partners in protecting children in Massachusetts.
First and foremost, I want to reiterate a point I, Peter, and others within our union have made time and time again from day one: those who bear responsibility in the case of Jeremiah Oliver must be held accountable. When evidence shows individuals played a role in this or any other tragedy, they must accept responsibility – whether that includes front-line social workers, department managers, or both. Our union represents social workers, investigators and supervisors who wake up every day with a sole mission of keeping at-risk kids safe. And as professionals who devote their lives to this important cause, they firmly believe in accountability.
But let me be clear. No number of disciplinary actions can turn back the clock on a tragedy such as this. And the Commonwealth cannot afford to let any single case – no matter how tragic – distract from the critical task of identifying the systemic issues that must be addressed in order to prevent future tragedies from occurring. We must tackle the contributing factors involved – not the least of which is the longstanding caseload crisis at the Department of Children & Families.
National guidelines clearly state that no more than 15 cases can be safely managed by a single social worker. Higher caseloads are known to place children at risk, and leading child protection experts agree that ideal numbers are well below 15 – often citing targets of 12 cases or less per social worker. The Collective Bargaining Agreement signed by the Commonwealth more than three years ago states that workers carry no more than 18 cases. This figure is still well above national guidelines, and in 2013 the Commonwealth signed a formal Caseload Agreement that would bring workloads down to safer, more manageable levels of 15 or less per social worker.
Yet, nearly a year after this agreement was signed, hundreds of social workers still carry 20, 22, 25 cases or more. That caseload could translate to 50 or more children in the care of a single worker. In a few minutes, Peter will walk us through what a caseload this high actually means on the ground, but it’s easy to see how this is an unmanageable workload under the best of circumstances.
This ‘caseload crisis’ – and it is a crisis in every sense of the word – is not isolated to any single DCF office or region. The map behind me and in the packets before you offers some insight into the true statewide nature of the crisis. The data that informs this map comes directly from the Department of Children & Families, and demonstrates the situation as it stood at the end of November, 2013. These are not estimates or guesses; this is hard data gathered through the department’s monthly review process.
On this map, each orange dot represents a social worker carrying more than 15 cases – over 1,400 across the state. Each red dot represents one of the nearly 850 social workers carrying more than 18 cases. Again, that’s one thousand four hundred social workers handling what we know to be unsafe and unmanageable caseloads – more than half of our front-line workforce. The numbers don’t lie; this is a systemic, statewide caseload crisis, and it’s one that we know places children at risk.
Also included on this map are the individual DCF Area Offices, marked by yellow rings – 33 in all, covering communities from Brockton to the Berkshires. The darkened circles represent offices with dangerous case levels. As you’ll note, 26 of the Commonwealth’s 33 Area Offices – 79 percent, overall – are struggling with unsafe caseloads. Social workers in Springfield, Dorchester, Lowell, Chelsea, New Bedford and elsewhere are all being crushed by ever-rising caseloads. And among the worst of these are the North Central office in Leominster and the South Central Office in Whitinsville – both of which have made continuous headlines in recent weeks.
According to the Department’s own data, South Central has ranked as the office with the most dangerous caseloads, month after month. The crisis prompted workers to hold lunch-time demonstrations to raise public awareness of the unmanageable caseloads – caseloads they worried could endanger child safety. One caseworker, handling more than 20 families, laid the situation out plainly to the Milford Daily News that day: “We can’t go out and do the site visits we need to do with this many cases and that puts children at risk.”
The caseworker’s warning came more than seven months ago – long before the Northbridge Superintendent wrote her letter to the legislature, citing slow response times to complaints from district staff. As they have done for years, front-line social workers continually raised red flags regarding unmanageable caseloads, with the hope their warning might prompt action and prevent future tragedies – long before the headlines and breaking news that brings us here today.
Often following closely behind in crisis-point caseloads is the North Central office, located in Leominster – the office handling the Jeremiah Oliver case. The story in Leominster follows a sadly familiar plotline, with social workers raising serious concerns over unsafe caseloads month after month. In May of 2013, 36 workers filed formal grievances over excessive caseloads of 18 or more each. By September, that number grew to 45. October brought 49. In December, 60 social workers – almost two-thirds of the workforce in Leominster – raised red flags over dangerous caseloads. The numbers get worse with each passing month.
The social worker handling Jeremiah Oliver’s case was among those filing monthly grievances – alerting area managers to what we know to be an unmanageable caseload. In fact, the social worker raised concerns about her workload of 20-plus cases for at least six straight months, from May to October. This is not to make any sort of excuse – no one has been able to uncover a full explanation for what happened in this case. I tell you this because we do know what marks an unmanageable caseload, and we know the results can be disastrous. Every case added to an already-unsafe workload significantly increases the chances of something falling through the cracks.
That’s why front-line social workers have spent decades aggressively pushing to identify and address systemic challenges at the Department of Children & Families – because we know, first-hand, how disastrous the results can be if left unchecked. No one has done more than this union to highlight and offer solutions to these systemic issues, not the least of which is the caseload crisis that casts a shadow over the critical work front line social workers do each day.
This crisis is not new. It pre-dates this Governor and several of his predecessors. Behind me is a spread from the Boston Herald, describing many of the same issues we are discussing today: too many cases, too few workers, insufficient time to devote to at-risk youth, and the potential for disastrous results. The articles were written in 1989.
Next to the Herald spread sits a photo captured at a Boston picket where then-DSS social workers fought to highlight the dangers of not implementing the ’15-case standard’ established by the 1985 Blue Ribbon Commission on caseloads. I was nine years old when this photo was taken – the ball hadn’t even run through Billy Buckner’s legs yet. That’s how long we’ve been talking about the caseload crisis – close to 30 years. That’s how long we’ve been talking about getting to 15 to 1.
For nearly three decades, front-line social workers have pushed for new hires to keep up with demand. We’ve fought to lower caseloads by statute and drafted budget amendments. And last year, we finally negotiated a landmark caseload agreement to bring us at least down to the 15-case maximum. That agreement was submitted for funding yesterday and we sincerely thank Governor Patrick and Secretary Shor for doing so.
But not all of the potential solutions come down to dollars and cents – in fact, some could actually save money. More than a year ago, we approached department administrators with a host of proposals designed to at least even out caseloads among offices. There’s no reason certain offices should bear disproportionately high workloads while others have capacity for growth, and we’ve put forward revised catchment areas that would lessen the burden on offices with higher caseloads. In
fact, last summer we specifically proposed changes to the catchment areas for Leominster and Lawrence – bordering offices that were the bore the second-highest and lowest average caseloads, respectively. This would have required no new money, no staff reassignments, and would have helped address a known, serious caseload problem. Yet the idea went nowhere.
After the story of the Oliver case broke, DCF administrators revisited the proposal. Even so, social workers were told such changes were unlikely because Lead Agencies would be inconvenienced, as their contracts are drawn by catchment area. Needless to say, we were stunned. These agencies are granted contracts – totaling millions of dollars, by DCF, to provide services to DCF – and yet the agencies seem to be calling the shots. We’re talking to taxpayer-funded entities about a serious caseload crisis that is endangering child safety, yet our own vendors seem to be the roadblock.
In several prior budgets, the House of Representatives – with Chairman Dempsey’s leadership – has wisely zeroed out funding for these so-called Lead Agencies, recognizing that money spent at DCF should be for social workers, investigators, supervision and technology. These are the services and supports at-risk children need to excel,
not bureaucracy and red tape. As you look for solutions to the challenges we face at DCF – and ways to pay for them – eliminating funding for Lead Agencies is an appropriate place to start.
I have spent the majority of my time talking about caseloads – and rightfully so, given the crisis before us. But there are other critical pieces of the puzzle that greatly impact the quality and efficiency of services we provide to children and families. I’d like to take a moment to highlight just a few.
In 1998, I got my first cell phone, which was about the size and weight of a brick. Most of us were using those AOL floppy disks we got in the mail to access the Internet. Believe it or not, the Department of Children & Families primarily operates on a computer system that was created in 1998, and has had no major updates since. Entering dictation from family visits or interviews with teachers and daycare providers is cumbersome at best, with dozens of individual windows involved. Less than a quarter of the system is accessible remotely. And even if it were, front-line social workers and investigators lack the hardware to access critical information while in the field. Long-overdue technology improvements will not only ensure up-to-date information is available to caseworkers when it counts, it will also help supervisors and managers improve oversight and catch trouble areas in real time.
It is equally critical that front-line workers be well trained, well supervised and well supported. A new class of social workers will lower caseloads, but will also require additional supervisors and managers to provide the necessary oversight and guidance. Everyone involved in child protection would stand to benefit from more frequent and accessible trainings and continuing education opportunities. Just as important is restoring the infrastructure that once provided vital support to front-line social workers. These Social Work Technicians, eliminated as a result of the economic downturn several years ago, were lower-wage workers who supervised parental visits, transported children to school activities and appointments, and kept adolescents out of truancy offices. This enabled social workers and investigators to focus much-needed attention on more challenging cases – those that require a higher level of training and expertise. As a recent Globe column made clear, no one is well served if a social worker’s day is essentially reduced to taxi service. Accordingly, we strongly recommend that the Department restore these positions to improve the quality and accessibility of critical social and investigative services.
In all this we cannot forget the vital support needed for families engaged with the department. In our current negotiations with the Administration, we have called for a long-overdue increase in rates for foster parents. We urged an increase in child care vouchers to enable more parents to find gainful employment – with the knowledge that economic hardship often leads to increased violence at home. Here again, we applaud the Governor’s funding proposal to create more slots for families working with DCF. To truly fulfill the agency’s mission, we must look at the whole picture and provide support and assistance as best we can.
At the end of the day, only one thing matters: keeping children throughout the Commonwealth safe from abuse and neglect. To do that, we must address the systemic problems we know exist at the Department of Children & Families – beginning with the caseload crisis. Yet we cannot afford to ignore the other tools social workers and investigators require to be successful – improved training, better supervision and much-needed support from Social Work Technicians. Our approach must incorporate modernized technology, both inside the offices and out in the field. And it must include a serious commitment to supporting foster parents, affordable child care, and other key services families rely on. Only then can we know that we’ve done all we can, as a community, to keep at-risk kids safe. For nearly 30 years we as a Commonwealth have talked about getting to 15 to 1 caseloads at DCF. Yesterday the Governor included funding that he believes will get us there. It’s time, no it’s past time we got that done.
Before we move into questions from committee members, I’d like to turn it over to Peter MacKinnon for a few minutes. With his many years of experience in both front-line and supervisory roles, Peter can offer an in-depth look into how these issues impact social workers on the ground each day – and provide a bit of practical guidance on the potential paths forward. Thank you.
PETER MACKINNON, DCF CHAPTER PRESIDENT
Thank you again to the committees for the opportunity to appear before you today. My name is Peter MacKinnon, and I am the President of SEIU’s Department of Children & Families chapter. I’ve worked for the department for more than 15 years, beginning as a front-line social worker handling Assessments and Ongoing cases in Lynn. Since then, I’ve served in a variety of capacities at DCF – as an Ongoing Supervisor, Investigation Supervisor, and now handling supervision of adolescent cases in Lowell.
Like many of my colleagues, I hold a Master’s Degree in Social Work, as well as an LCSW or Licensed Certified Social Worker status. And prior to my time at DCF, I worked for several private agencies, working with youth involved with both the Department of Children & Families and the Department of Youth Services. So I come to the issues before you today both with first-hand experience on the front lines, as well as the perspective of a supervisor and union leader who is charged with supporting our 2,800 DCF social workers and investigators. In short, the caseload crisis is very real to me, and I hope to share with you just a bit of the impact these issues have on our day-to-day work at the Department of Children & Families.
I want to start off by echoing a point that Chris made earlier, but it bears repeating. My colleagues and I share a firm dedication to keeping kids safe from abuse and neglect. That is our number one priority as front-line social workers. And when tragedies like this occur, those who bear responsibility must be held accountable – plain and simple. The mission of our agency is challenging, to be sure, and there’s no shortage of potential pitfalls. But at the end of the day, accountability is paramount – up and down the department’s chain of command.
As a DCF social worker, you make life or death decisions every day. You do the best you can with the time, tools and information available to you. Ultimately, your decisions determine whether or not a child receives specific services or remains in their home. These vital choices will have a long-lasting impact on that child’s future, so you have to get it right. Every time. And to do that, you must have the time needed to ask questions, read reports, investigate inconsistencies, go to school and meet with teachers and others who know the child. You need to immerse yourself in every possible aspect of that child’s life to ensure they are safe and have the best chance of success, despite their family challenges.
Time is the single largest determining factor in whether or not that child succeeds, and there are only so many hours in each day. I can state, from personal experience, that high caseloads guarantee that you, as the social worker, will not have that time. When you’re handling 18, 20, or more cases – and perhaps three times as many children – you can’t come even close to providing the level of service you know is needed. It’s essentially a sentence for the children in your care.
Take the average social worker with an 18-case workload – keeping in mind that hundreds of front-line staff at DCF carry even more. I’ve been there, myself, and I’ve supervised many workers in the same situation. I think it may be informative to walk you through a quick ‘day in the life’ scenario. Behind me and in your packets is a chart detailing an actual DCF caseload. The first thing you’ll undoubtedly notice is the number of children is actually double – 36 kids among the 18 families, and that’s on the low side. Twenty-one of these children are in foster placement, which requires a significantly greater amount of time, oversight and care.
Looking at Family #1, you’ll note the three children in the household each attend separate schools. That means interviews with teachers and counselors take place in three separate locations. A therapist has been engaged on behalf of one child, with whom our DCF social worker will need to coordinate care. The parents are separated, which is typical, and means separate home safety assessments and regular check-ins must be established to ensure the children’s safety. Both parents are in drug and alcohol treatment programs, services DCF would have worked with local agencies to secure. There are also two probation offices engaged with the family, which adds another layer of necessary check-ins, oversight and coordination. In all, the DCF social worker would need to make contact with dozens of adults each month just to assess and ensure the safety of the children – and that’s just a single, relatively simple case.
Jump over to Family #17 and you’ll have a better picture of what an involved case looks like. Five children, spilt between separated parents and a host of foster families. Another adult is in the picture, likely a significant other of one of the parents. Any new adult entering the family constellation triggers a series of necessary assessments and in-person check-ins to ensure the children he or she has contact with are safe. In this case, four separate therapists are involved, in addition to two school counselors at four schools. Several of the children have health issues, and four individual physicians are providing medical care. Our DCF social worker will need to coordinate care with all of them. Moving to the legal side of the equation, we have a probation officer and a judge overseeing the case of one of the parents, with four lawyers engaged. None of that touches on the social services the children and parents require, which the DCF social worker will coordinate with three separate Family Resource Centers.
Each case, often involving multiple children, breaks down to dozens of moving pieces. In all, this social worker – handling 18 cases – is actually dealing with a total of 239 family and collateral contacts on a day-to-day basis. Two hundred thirty nine individuals who could impact those children’s lives for better or worse, and therefore must be assessed, tracked and contacted regularly. Even one of these cases would be a challenge to handle appropriately, let alone 18.
This social worker’s situation is exactly why we have national guidelines on safe, manageable caseloads. Those guidelines, established by the Child Welfare League of America, Council on Accreditation, and others clearly state that no more than 15 cases can be safely handled by a single social worker. That’s 15 cases at a maximum, not as an ideal target. Anything more puts children at risk, plain and simple.
Front-line social workers used these guidelines – notably established by an entity engaged in an independent review of DCF – to push for and secure our caseload agreement with Commissioner Roche and her predecessor, former Commissioner McClain. The landmark agreement was years in the making and, when funded, will reduce caseloads to 15 or less per social worker. Equally important, it will cap the number of children in any one social worker’s care at 28. No more than ten kids could be in placement situations.
I can’t underscore how critical the funding of this caseload agreement is to our ability to keep children safe in Massachusetts. Research has consistently shown that the best predictor of positive outcomes for families involved with child protective services is the quality of the relationship between the social worker and the family. These are, by definition, human relationships – and the only way to have a quality relationship is if you have the time to build one. The current caseload crisis makes this all but impossible. In fact, the sheer number of eyes-on visits, collateral contacts, court proceedings and coordination meetings involved in an 18-family caseload results in nothing short of drive-by social work. You spend a few minutes in a client’s home speaking with them and the kids, then have to move to the next family. Under these circumstances, social workers will miss something. Things will fall through the cracks.
In the midst of all this sits a system of outdated, inadequate, and cumbersome technology. As Chris pointed out earlier, our database hasn’t seen a major update in nearly 25 years. Between the dozens of windows in which data is tracked, we waste countless hours entering data, being frozen out of the system and re-entering information. Even then, the lion’s share of the database isn’t even available online – meaning social workers have to be physically present, in an area office, to research a case or enter in notes. Have a multi-hour wait at the courthouse? Forget catching up on the data backlog. Need to access a case file while out in the field? Not possible.
These technological deficiencies have real practical implications. Service Plans – the agency’s contract with the family that outlines expectations and supports needed to keep the children safe – used to be written at the client’s kitchen table, with the family. It was a true mutual agreement, and encouraged buy-in from everyone involved. Families were more likely to engage with DCF because we did this together, leading to superior outcomes. Now, the service plan has to be done on a desktop computer, at the office, almost always without the family. Our work is now something that is done to the family and not with them.
Caseload and technology issues at the Department of Children & Families have only been exacerbated by directives issued in the wake of the Oliver tragedy. While all of these reforms are well-intentioned, and many are important steps in the right direction, we simply do not have the resources to carry them out effectively. Staffing levels and hiring rates were insufficient to keep up with existing workloads, let alone universal screen-ins and an uptick in investigations. We were already 150 or more social workers short before the directives were issued.
Again, many of these reforms may be necessary, but simple math comes into play when we’re talking about real-world application. The more screen-ins and investigations are added to a social worker’s caseload, the less time she has to dig into each of them and do real, quality social work. When caseloads are piled this high, she has no choice but to triage. That triage process could miss vital facts or nuances that otherwise would have been noticed. And again, mistakes are made – things fall through the cracks.
Ultimately, the new DCF directives have put an emphasis on compliance – seeing kids, entering case notes, and closing out investigations. All important tasks, but volume and time constraints take their toll on quality. We are relegated to checking off boxes on spreadsheets and in the computer. See this kid? Yes. Okay, next.
Real social work is more than checking boxes, and there’s no such thing as supervision by survey. A glorified sign-in sheet is not an actual assessment: the right question isn’t ‘Did you visit?’ It’s ‘How did the visit go?’ The race to enter data has meant that necessary clinical supervision discussions are put on the back burner. Both components – real assessment and supervision – are critical to ensuring the children in our care are safe and well.
Combined, these challenges have had a severe impact on morale at the Department of Children & Families. Front-line social workers consistently describe the work environment as the worst in recent memory. As a social worker, this is concerning – but as a leader in the workforce, it’s even more alarming. A recent survey we took of our members in the Plymouth Office, for example, showed that nearly two-thirds were seriously considering or actively seeking another job outside the agency. We can’t afford that kind of turnover anywhere in state government, let alone in a department charged with child protection. Something must be done.
That brings us back, full circle, to the very solutions Chris outlined earlier. First among these is ensuring the Department of Children & Families has sufficient staff to maintain safe caseloads. Our caseload agreement made huge strides toward this goal last year and, to his credit, Governor Patrick’s budget proposal takes some important steps toward making it a reality. But it may not get us all the way there, and we need your leadership and stewardship to carry us the rest of the way. Technology upgrades and the restoration of our support infrastructure of Social Work Technicians are also key steps toward getting the Department of Children & Families back in order. And beyond the internal needs, there are a host of key programs and services that greatly influence our ability to provide adequate support to the families in our care – from improved rates for our foster parents to more affordable child care options for working parents. These initiatives, too, are important pieces of the puzzle.
I know I speak on behalf of the department’s 2,800 front-line social workers and support staff when I say that we are ready to tackle these systemic challenges. We are ready to elevate our long-standing advocacy around key issues that impact the families we serve, and we look forward to working with each of you and all of your colleagues to bring about the changes needed to fulfill the agency’s mission of keeping every last child in Massachusetts safe from abuse and neglect. Thank you again for your time.