As I waited in line at a store yesterday I couldn’t help but notice the Boston Herald’s giant headline proclaiming that the Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts is ‘under fire’ and our Governor, Deval Patrick is calling for an independent review of the system which is being termed ‘very broken’ by many. With what I’ve read, the Governor does not agree with this determination.
As someone who has interacted with both the Massachusetts and Maine versions of DCF, while I admit I am no authority on either and really just have my own experiences and history to offer, I can speak about both.
A five year old boy from Fitchburg, MA is missing and presumed dead. The boy’s social worker, her supervisor, and the area supervisor were all allegedly negligent in conducting required home visits to assess the boy’s safety. When the social worker failed to make the visits, this was covered by her supervisor (according to news reports) and then further tolerated and covered up by the area supervisor. All three have been fired from their jobs.
Three separate 51a’s (reports you file when you suspect a child is at risk of neglect or abuse) were filed between June and September on this boy. Three. Three separate opportunities for a risk assessment to be done and the boy to be helped if at all possible rather than now being missing and presumed dead. The social worker, without actually making a visit to the child’s home, filed reports that the boy’s home was a ‘clean and suitable’ environment, at the same time as teachers were putting up red flags about the boy that were being ignored.
If you’re feeling ‘outrage’ at what you just read, you’re not alone. I feel it too. I adopted a child from foster care. His birth history, while I won’t detail it here, is a very ‘typical’ story from the tales of children in foster care. He could easily have been this boy who has now disappeared and is presumed dead.
What angers me more than the social worker’s practice of filing false home visit reports and that being covered up by the supervisor and that person’s supervisor, though, is the comments made by Governor Deval Patrick that this is a ‘unique case’ and is not an indication that the ‘system’ is broken. I beg to differ. Even a ‘unique case’ where this happens is one too many and absolutely unacceptable. Dead is dead, Governor Patrick. Dead is dead.
Governor Patrick has said that he is ‘satisfied’ with the investigation that DCF has conducted into how this case ‘slipped through the cracks’. A very polite term to use when a five year old boy is most likely dead. He is not a ‘statistic’ or a ‘unique case’…he is a human life….a life that is likely ended before it had the chance to be lived.
The boy’s father has apparently been arrested for possession of heroin. 30 bags of heroin. He reportedly has taken an apartment in Connecticut and is seeking custody of his two other children. The mother of the children, who is an alleged drug user and supposedly suffers from mental illness, lives in Massachusetts and until recently lived with her boyfriend. The missing boy’s sister has reported that the boyfriend is ‘abusive’. The boyfriend has also been arrested on alleged assault and battery charges.
A fourth party in the DCF structure has been demoted and suspended in connection with this case for the ‘mishandling’ of the welfare of the missing child by not completing required monthly home visits. The primary social worker apparently covered 18 cases in her work load. In comparison to other social workers, this is considered a ‘light’ load. In those 18 cases, the social worker apparently did not visit 8 of the 18 homes she was responsible for. The DCF Commissioner has said that the other 7 homes are ‘doing fine’, despite the non-presence of the social worker. That’s all well and good, Commissioner…but it’s not good enough for Jeremiah Oliver. Dead is dead, Commissioner.
When you take in a foster child, at least in Massachusetts, you have several people involved. The child has a social worker. You have a social worker. The child also has a legal representative. All three of these people are, by law, required to check up regularly on the well-being of the child and the family under their watch.
I don’t wish to ‘generalize’ and say that all social workers are negligent. Quite the contrary. There are some very dedicated social workers who cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ as the saying goes. They feel passionately about their work and the difference they make in the lives of families at risk. I know, personally, social workers that I greatly admire and respect for their attention to and devotion to what they do, and their ability to keep on trying to make a difference despite the ‘horrors’ they regularly witness in their profession. There are excellent social workers, just like there are bad ones. We hear more about the bad ones than we do the excellent ones, because when the bad ones fail at their jobs just as monumentally as the excellent ones succeed…a life is either put at risk or ended, unnecessarily, rather than being saved. The press seems to like to promote a horror story more than a happy ending. Sad but true. And as unfortunate as they are to read/hear about, it is the horror stories that seem to make something happen.
I have been witness to and involved with the child and family welfare system in two states now, and have seen things and learned things that have caused me to really question the effectiveness of the ‘system’ as it stands now. Because this is a public blog that anyone can read, I am going to withhold the absolute ‘worst’ details that I have. I would discuss them with someone I know personally, but they are not appropriate for widespread visibility. Other things, though, I can and will share with anyone.
When I was a foster parent, before adoption, my child had three different social workers assigned to his case in the mandatory waiting period before he could be adopted. I have nothing ‘bad’ to say about two of them. The third is another story. That person was simply a ‘warm body’ assigned to the case. I do not now recall her name. She showed no real ‘concern’ for the child assigned to her. The visits she made, which at times were not ‘once a month’ but were six, eight weeks apart, and most often well UNDER an hour (because there was no cause for concern for the child’s welfare) appeared to be, for her, simply the fulfillment of an obligation. She never sat and talked with my son. She didn’t play with him. She didn’t more than once ask to see his bedroom, and never opened the refrigerator or asked to see medical records from checkups. I get that she didn’t ‘feel’ she needed to. But she had no history with my child. She was an interim social worker assigned to the case after the initial social worker left her job for another, and before the final social worker we had came on board that was involved up through the adoption. She had no real knowledge of him, as a child, as a person, to see that he was developing ‘as he should’, that he was being properly cared for. She took our word for it, and he was. By all appearances he was fine, and fortunately in this instance it was the truth. In many cases it isn’t the truth, and those are the ones that often result in tragedy.
My son also had an attorney assigned to his case that was supposed to, by law, conduct regular visits to check on his welfare and progress. I saw her once…..one time…..in the year that he was pre-adoptive. I did make mention of this at the time. It did not change the lack of visitation.
Below are some of the things I find most ‘concerning’ about the way the ‘system’ works now:
1. There are some 16,000 children/families with active cases with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 16,000. To fully assess the suitability of a home, you have to evaluate each and every member of that household, not just the one child (if it’s limited to one) that there are concerns around. I cannot find any conclusive number of social workers in the Commonwealth, but have found that 18 cases is the state imposed ‘limit’. A ‘case’ is not just one child. It is a ‘family’. A family can have, and most times does, more than one child. A social worker can have only 18 cases. If each of those cases has just two children, that’s still 36 lives the social worker is responsible for. Yet each child has parents, do they not? Therefore, if each of those 18 cases has a single parent raising kids, that is a minimum of 36 people still per social worker. If there are two children in each case, that’s up to 54 people. If the home contains either the second parent or a boyfriend/girlfriend, that’s 72 people covered by each social worker. If there are three children, that number swells to 90. If the parents are divorced and each parent has a boyfriend or girlfriend, then the number grows even further to well over 100. More than 100 people that a social worker is expected to visit with and evaluate in a one hour visit once a month.
2. Home visits are ‘scheduled’ more often than they are not. It’s an unfortunate reality that a social worker cannot simply visit a family any time of the day or night and do their job if the family is not at home. If you call on a weekend to raise concerns about a family you think is at risk, the response is not immediate. I know this first hand. There is not more than a minimal staff available to handle any and all calls that are received raising flags that something is amiss and someone is at risk. Only the initialization of the screening of potential risk takes place within a few hours of a report. The process ‘begins’ within a few hours, which can be simply writing a report on the report you received. The Massachusetts DCF agency has, by their own standards, 2 hours to investigate an ’emergency’ situation and then 15 business days to complete a report. A ‘non-emergency’ situation allows for 2 business days (that does not include weekends) to assess the situation, and then the same 15 days to complete a report. File a report on a Friday night, and unless it’s considered an emergency, it may be the following Tuesday before anyone does anything more than just write some words in a file.
3. Home visits look for the same standard things: Is the home clean? Are the children clean and properly clothed? Is there food in the home or diapers and other necessary items to properly care for a baby? These are the things social workers are looking for, primarily, though I’m sure there are other things they try to watch for. But in reality, how long does it take to throw things in a closet or in a basement or attic and ‘pick up your house’? How long does it take to run to the store and grab some milk, some eggs, some bread and put them away if you know someone is coming? I live in a 8 room house. There is a small grocery store in my town. I can, in less than an hour, manage to make the house look very presentable, no matter what condition it starts out in, and put food in the fridge. It’s that easy. To pass an inspection, you don’t need to provide details on what your children are actually eating. You don’t need to make the floors shine. You simply have to make the house look ‘safe’ and have some food in the fridge, and if you have a baby in the home, make sure you have diapers and formula (if they use it). You don’t even have to let a social worker into your home, by law, if there is not a search warrant issued or if there is not legitimate, probable cause to believe there is ‘imminent danger’ to the children in the home. You don’t have to answer any questions posed by a social worker, or let the children speak to a social worker independently without a court issued order to allow it.
4. As an adult, you’d think that children would do anything and everything to escape abuse and neglect by their parents. You’d think that would be a ‘no brainer’. Guess again. Children will suffer day in and day out to ‘not tell’ and not risk removal from their parents, no matter how bad their home life is. They will protect their parents and their routine, no matter how bad it truly is, for a very long time before they will report on it, if they ever do. Children are prompted by their parents, threatened even, to keep silent about what goes on in their home. They have it drilled into their heads that they will be ‘taken’ from their family, and their home, and never see them again if they DO tell. They will maintain that nothing is wrong, nothing is going on, rather than risk this, until sometimes it is just too late for anyone to do anything at all. Teachers, neighbors, friends, and other family members can raise all the flags they want. As long as you can scare your child into covering for you, and give the very superficial appearance that everything is ‘okay’….there’s not much that can be done for at risk children.
5. You can hand a child welfare agency a 20 item list of concerns, involving animal feces on the floor, bruises on a child’s body, negligence in regular doctor or dental care visits, witnessing drug sales taking place out of a home, etc., etc., etc. – and unless a representative visits that home and actually SEES these things…there is really nothing they can do about it. They may or may not schedule a follow up visit. Many times they just file a report that they saw ‘nothing of concern’ and the case is closed.
I could offer so much more with far greater detail of my own experience with child welfare agencies, but it would reveal levels of information that I’m not comfortable sharing with a wider audience. I could ‘wax horrific’ about the inherent flaws in the way in which states handle at risk family involvement due to THEIR OWN RESTRICTIONS of what they can and cannot do.
I have to disagree with our Governor. This is not a ‘unique case’. In July 2013, two months before Jeremiah Oliver disappeared, Governor Patrick called the death of another child, Chase Gideika, a ‘horrible thing’ when the child was left in the home. Chase Gideika died of massive head trauma, after being beaten by Anthony Gideika, who had believed himself to be the child’s biological father, but had found out that that was likely not the case and had begun, per his own admission, abusing prescription drugs. Chase Gideika was three months old at the time of his death.
In 2005, a 4-year-old in Boston was killed by his foster mother, Corinne Stephen. Stephen was sentenced to eight years in prison December 2007.
In 2006, a child from Westfield, who fell into a coma after a severe beating, was the subject of numerous allegations that were overlooked.
Jeremiah Oliver’s disappearance and likely death at age 5 is not a ‘unique’ case. It is one of many, far more than I have listed above here. It is not (just) ‘unfortunate’ and ‘difficult’ and ‘terrible’. It is far more than that. Jeremiah Oliver, Chase Gideika, and so many other children that have died when the ‘system’ has failed them were not just ‘statistics’ and ‘regrettable oversights’. They were human beings.
Fire anyone you like. Express all the concern you like. Hire anyone to ‘review’ policies and procedures that you like. The general populace loves to have someone to blame….it mollifies many to believe that ‘someone’ has paid the price when something goes wrong and that it’s being ‘looked into’. It settles the dust sufficiently until it can be ‘swept under the carpet’ and people then move on to the next scandal to latch onto. It provides many with a false sense of security that it ‘won’t happen again’.
Until it does.
Removing ineffective people from their jobs is not the answer. Reviewing what that job entails, what restrictions are in place that PREVENT a person from doing that job, and painting a more accurate picture that shows that 18 ‘cases’ is in all likelihood far too much for one person to handle and to properly address at-risk children and families in more than a mandated ONE HOUR PER MONTH visit is a start. Requiring absolute, incontrovertible proof that that visit took place is an even better start.
The average social worker makes roughly $47K per year in Mass. An ‘Accountant III’ position with the state division of banks paid ten thousand dollars per year more than that in 2007. An ‘Administrative Assistant’ at the division of campaign and political finance was paid eleven thousand dollars more per year than that in 2007. An ‘Accountant’ at the state lottery commission made almost twenty thousand dollars more than that in 2007. Are we really spending more per state worker for someone to oversee finances for elections that take place every four years than we are to oversee the day to day lives of our children?
As I said, I know some great social workers. Excellent ones. I don’t really think simply hiring someone ‘else’ will make the difference that is needed in overhauling a flawed system. I also cannot at all agree with the Governor that the system is not broken, that there is no need for such concern as is being raised now following Jeremiah Oliver’s disappearance and probable death. Even a ‘unique’ case is one too many. With minimal ‘research’ I found two of these ‘unique’ cases that took place in Massachusetts in the last six months alone where the child welfare agencies were involved. To call these instances (and all others) just unfortunate, terrible, or ‘unique’ is a complete and utter travesty and to do such a soft-shoe around the broader and obvious problems in the agency that was tasked with protecting their lives is in my opinion disgusting. I would be ashamed to have made such a ‘p.c.’ mockery of the waste of two lives like that. These two boys (and all the rest who have died) will never have the chance to stand before you and tell you what horrors they suffered. You’ll never hear them ask for help or say they’re scared or listen to them cry in pain. You should have to. Anyone who claims that the system that FAILED THEM is not broken should.. Unfortunately, you never will have to. Because Chase Gideiki, and most likely Jeremiah Oliver, are dead.
And dead is dead, Governor Patrick.
Dead is dead.