The commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families has resigned following the deaths of three children on her watch. Child welfare advocates say the focus now needs to shift to fixing problems at the state agency and preventing child abuse.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who had previously rejected DCF Commissioner Olga Roche’s resignation offers, said Tuesday he had reluctantly agreed to accept it now, believing the troubled child welfare agency can’t move forward with her at the helm.
" She can not garner the confidence of the public nor of her line staff."
Roche, who has 30 years experience as a social worker, was DCF commissioner for only a year. The new interim commissioner, Erin Deveney, has been at the child welfare agency for just a month. She was previously chief of staff at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Roche’s departure came a day after the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, the State Senate President and the Massachusetts Attorney General called for her removal. They did so after weekend news reports about the death on Saturday of a 16-day-old infant. A DCF case worker was to have visited the family the day before the parents brought the unresponsive girl to a hospital.
Patrick called it a “risky move” to replace Roche because she was overseeing reforms at the DCF, but he said she had become the focus of all criticism being directed at the child welfare agency.
" The focus of our collective attention and effort must be on protecting children under DCF's care. Under the current leadership that focus seems impossible," said Patrick.
DCF has been under scrutiny since late last year when it was revealed that a 4-year old boy had gone missing during a time when caseworkers had skipped several scheduled visits to the boy’s home in Fitchburg. Four DCF staffers were fired. The body of the child, Jeremiah Oliver, was found earlier this month.
Authorities are also investigating the death of a one-month-old baby in Grafton, where police said they faxed a child abuse complaint form to DCF, where it was misplaced for six days. Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said Grafton police failed to follow up with a required phone call, so he’s had the abuse complaint form changed to highlight the reporting requirements.
John Goodwin, president of the Center for Human Development, a Springfield-based nonprofit social service agency that works with children, said he hopes the focus shifts now to fixing problems at DCF including the high caseloads of the agency’s social workers.
" I feel like we were making progress in most areas of service to children. This has been a tremendous set back with these three deaths, but I am still optimistic that things will get better."
Joan Kagan, CEO of Square One, a Springfield-based early childhood education program, said the crisis at DCF underscores the need for community-wide efforts to prevent child abuse.
"What do families need to ensure their children are safe. Whether it is parent education classes, mental health counseling, financial assistance if they can't put food on the table or properly clothe their children."
Child welfare advocates participated in a child abuse prevention month program at Springfield City Hall Tuesday. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno praised social workers for their dedication.
A children’s memorial flag was raised at city hall to honor each child lost to violence and raise public awareness about child abuse.