With DCF Under Scrutiny, Requests To Remove Children From Troubled Homes Rise Sharply

BOSTON — The state Department of Children and Families works with people in crisis, and so alarming disappearances and mysterious deaths are not out of the ordinary. But a recent spate of high profile cases, including the case of a missing 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who is feared dead, has thrust the agency into the spotlight.

“This is not a new story, unfortunately, with this agency. And it’s because they’re working with very troubled families,” Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray told WBUR’s Morning Edition last week. “When I began my career in the Senate as chair of Human Services, we overhauled the agency then because then we lost seven children in one year in the foster care system. When I say lost, I mean they were murdered.”

That was in 1997.

How many children die each year in the DCF system because of abuse and neglect is debatable. A report from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting says that since 2001 at least 95 children have died. The Office of the Child Advocate disputes that number as too high.

Either way, it’s fair to say, deaths — such as the ones that have received recent attention — are not a new problem. In fact, the Office of the Child Advocate was created in 2007 in the wake of a series of fatalities in the DCF system.

Gail Garinger heads the office, and she says it’s unfair DCF gets all the blame. She says the agency is not operating in a vacuum. Pediatricians, teachers, judges — they’re all involved too. The entire system puts a priority on strengthening families and keeping them together.

“There would be some who might criticize that in some cases we perhaps did leave children in homes where the family just could not be sufficiently strengthened,” Garinger said.

Since the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, DCF has found itself under intense scrutiny. There have been calls for Commissioner Olga Roche to resign. The governor has an independent organization investigating the department’s procedures, and state lawmakers are also conducting a review.

The result of all this attention, Garinger says, is that the DCF is now operating in a dangerous reactive mode. She says she’s particularly concerned about the recent spike in requests to remove kids under DCF supervision from their family homes.

The number of requests to take a child out of their home because of risk of "abuse or neglect" have risen sharply year over year. (Source: Administrative Office of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court)

The number of requests to take a child under DCF supervision out of their home have risen sharply year over year. (Source: Administrative Office of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court)

“I think we need to get a better understanding of what that represents,” Garinger said. “Were some children left in homes they shouldn’t have been left in and now we’re filing? Or are we filing prematurely perhaps out of risk aversion?”

Last month, the number of requests to take kids away from their families was nearly double what it was a year ago.

Garinger says front-line social workers have a “Herculean” job.

Dacia Thompson is one of those social workers, and she agrees that these days that it’s tough job. The media are attacking you, politicians are joining the choir, and so social workers are walking on eggshells.

“Every crisis is taken to be big right now,” she said. “And so the response to families’ homes and disrupting children’s lives is higher because everybody is taking crisis to the extreme.”

Thompson has worked for DCF for seven years — first in Weymouth and now in Dorchester. She loves the work, but admits it’s overwhelming. She’s juggling 20 cases right now — and that’s not 20 kids, that’s 20 families, some with as many as six kids. Thompson says she’s often working 13-hour days.

Part of what’s frustrating, she says, is that the public doesn’t understand her job.

“I think there’s pressure to create this superhuman persona that we can solve and fix and do everything.” But, Thompson says, that’s not possible. Every family that DCF helps is a family in crisis. DCF enters the picture because there’s a problem. And it’s even harder, she says, when social workers are balancing 20-plus cases. The average national caseload is 15 — that’s considered a “safe” amount.

Peter MacKinnon, president of the union that represents state social workers, says many of them are juggling more than the safe number, which means they’re just triaging.

“You’re making a decision, ‘I’m gonna look at this particular aspect of a case and not that aspect. And I hope that what I’m looking at is the right aspect,’ ” MacKinnon said. “And it’s a gamble because you don’t have the time to look at everything.”

Since the Jeremiah Oliver case, Gov. Deval Patrick has called for additional funding to decrease caseloads. And last week the Massachusetts House approved $2.8 million in emergency funding so that DCF could hire more staff.

But Natick Rep. David Linsky, chair of the House committee investigating the DCF, says that’s only a short-term solution.

“Clearly, we need to reduce the caseload, but I don’t want people to think that just by throwing money at the problem we can fix all the problems at DCF,” he added.

Linsky says his committee is doing a top to bottom review in the hopes of crafting some concrete solutions that can be adopted when the House debates the budget in the spring.

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  • Artemisia Petti

    Shame on WBur once again for not doing investigative reporting and defending this totally dysfunctional department. Of all SW to interview, you have chosen the epitome of the dysfunction at DcF. SW who anise their power to carry out personal vendettas. Doesn’t matter what you have done or not done, if your social worker doesn’t like your personality they will punish you.
    Only they won’t get away with this behavior much longer, we are not in DcF land anymore, we are in the court of public opinion and DCF is sorely losing.

    • keltcrusader

      who has a vendetta against who here?

      • David Seaman

        Did you mean “whom?” I say this because it seems to be as off subject as your response. I do not agree with all that A. Petti said, but I agree with the anger and the outrage that exists there. Instead of tossing darts, why not try to guide that anger toward a productive place?

        • keltcrusader

          Yes, I see you are a teacher – thank you for the correction.
          If you look at ALL her posts in her history, this is just another of a long line of posts venomously directed against the DCF and its employees. How exactly is that constructive?

          • Lawrence

            It’s illuminating.

  • Artemisia Petti

    The public understands your job, Dacia. Your job is to use resources to support families and to remove children from their homes when their is imminent risk. Not to waste taxpayer money on frivolous cases and personal vendettas. Not to abuse your power for your retaliatory behavior. We, the public, do understand your job, do you understand your job? If you are innocently not able to fully investigate the families,that wouldn’t explain why you have lied and distorted the truth in your reports and affidavits. If you truly have a cause, why do you have to lie to justify your actions? Or are you only trying to justify your existence.
    I will expect to be retaliated against for these and many other comments I have written as well as letters to every state rep and senator and The attorney generals office. I have written to every editor covering any story on the DCF debocle. If I am retaliated against, you can be sure I will chronicle everything moving forward as we’ll. I WILL NEVER BE QUIET as long as DCF is not held accountable for their abuse against loving and competent families

    • Lawrence

      Seems like you know what you are talking about, but I did not see any details.
      What frivolous cases? What personal vendetta?
      When was there an abuse of power?
      Are you saying that even kids in loving homes are being snatched away? Examples?

      • Artemisia Petti

        Lawrence, I’m speaking from my own experience and it would be impossible to post all the details of my case in the comment section here. One publicized case is that of Justina Pelletier who was diagnosed with Mitochondrial disease by a renouned hospital and when she went to Children’s in Boston they disagreed with the diagnosis and locked her up in a psych ward for one year. DCF has no accountability, they answer to no one, only now are they beginning to do audits from the outside. They have “immunities” so you can’t sue them for violating constitutional rights. They are the only public servants that are not held accountable at some point. I can prove they entered lies and omitted pertinent info from the affidavit they entered into court as evidence, sworn in under oath. In the real world, this is perjury.

      • Fawn Elizabeth

        My case is a frivolous case & snatched from a loving home!!! Unfortunately the children who need help don’t get it!! DCF is powerful & nobody wanted to go against them! The people high up making all the decisions

  • alannah mcgrowdie

    my Aunty Julia got silver Volkswagen Beetle
    Convertible by working parttime off of a home computer… Look At This F­i­s­c­a­l­P­o­s­t­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Softie

    While collectivism forces each of us to equality of condition, the individualist recognizes that freedom results from equality of liberty.

  • georgepotts

    DCF always does the right thing. Whatever they do is for the common good. They told me if I say anything about them, they can take my kids too.

    If you don’t support DCF, don’t answer your door.

  • georgepotts


  • Fawn Elizabeth

    I’m personally going through hell with DCF right now!! My son passed away from. SIDS. DCF came that night ohh were not taking your kids etc.. Mind you the only reason my case was even open at this time was they wanted to help with Christmas and make sure my oldest didn’t loose his slot I. Preschool. Well the next morning they took my children from there home. I don’t do drugs, I don’t abuse my children, and I don’t neglect my children. I live in a beautiful neighborhood, wonderful family, in college but had to take time off because I had my twins at 6 months & they were born at 2lbz 1oz & 1lb 2oz they had many health problems & a miracle they survived! They were at greater risk for SIDS and had spells were they would stop breathing turn bluish grey and you had to stimulate him or give him oxygen! Well I demanded they have a oxygen monitor at home. Nope mind you they have lung disease. Then they thought they had ashma on top of that!! They both got very sick and would not give me what they needed. Yes I know what to do when there awake and it happens but what if I’m asleep or they are asleep or we are both asleep? So after receiving about 7 vaccines each they got very sick and had a bronchial infection. That was after I got a 2nd opinion! 3 days later my son passed away from SIDS. DCF came and took my 2 other children the next morning and I’ve been fighting them in court ever since! Im disgusted at DCF I see people who have no business having there children but are never removed! Most of the children removed should never been removed! Mothers and fathers who love there children, work, are not abusive in anyway nor neglectful & destroys families peoples careers ruined, fired, because of being involved with DCF or having there children removed.

  • Fawn Elizabeth

    Thank you. The reason on paper ” concerned about possible Co-sleeping” I could not believe what I was reading!!! first off with sick twins as well as yourself your hardly sleeping I have 5 bassinets & my older son if he has a nightmare and is scared so what!! It’s complete BS and there separated the baby is with a non English speaking family nor do they understand. I am not Spanish and would like to be able to communicate with my son. He will be 1 this month and i was robbed time I can never get back. The foster mother has him in clothes that don’t fit let’s him ride in a ambulance alone and doesn’t visit. it has traumatized me, my children. I thought you had to abuse, seriously neglect, be all messed up and still the parent or parents given chances well that’s not the case and they can push the trial back that it’s a almost a year before you get your day in court. My family will be dealing with the psychological and emotional damage from this for years!!

  • Fawn Elizabeth

    The public understands the job of a social worker. They are at the bottom of the food chain and most times it’s people who never met the family making decisions!! The problem is Mass being one of the worst states in the country the children that are abused and really need help and sexually abused is a small percent of those taken!!! There is guidelines to follow but nobody seems to follow them!! Human services is the first to get cut financially. There are good social workers but feel helpless because regardless what they feel even though they are the ones who actually see the family is irrelevant!! The good ones a lot of them quit feeling they can’t make a difference there sent to do DCF dirty work!!! I personally know of some of the most sticking & disturbing, and corrupt things that have gone on and still go on!! Lawyers are scared to go against them the ones who will 9 out of 10 are not really fighting your case. Education these kids and teens get moved & moved and are not in school and treated like they did something wrong like a caged animal!! It’s very very sad! DCF gets away with whatever they want and play by there own rules. I do feel bad for the social workers who do care and want to help and many go against his or her Superviser and who knows maybe sometimes it works but most loose there career & so on…..

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