WBUR

DCF Commissioner Discusses Agency’s Challenges, Struggles

Facing questions about her ability to lead the DCF, Commissioner Olga Roche points to her 27 years of experience. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Facing questions about her ability to lead the DCF, Commissioner Olga Roche points to her 27 years of experience. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — The state Department of Children and Families has been embroiled in controversy since last year’s disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, of Fitchburg, who’s now feared dead. His family was being supervised by the department at the time.

In the months since the boy’s case came to light, the department’s commissioner, Olga Roche, has faced calls for her resignation, but Gov. Deval Patrick has continued to defend Roche, who has, in turn, stood by her agency.

Roche’s Upbringing And Path To DCF

Roche, poised in a shimmering green wrap, told her story in her office in Downtown Crossing. She was born to a teen mom.

“The family was in New York City, and that was in the early ’50s, and [my mother] found herself without the support of my father, with two children in New York City, only with a ninth-grade education,” Roche said. “And so my great-grandmother, who was 82 years old at the time, and my grandmother came to New York City and said, ‘You need to come home with the two children.’ So I grew up in kinship care, staying with my grandmother and great-grandmother.”

Home became Puerto Rico. Roche’s mother took a studio apartment nearby.

“So that was like the beginnings of my journey about connections to the field of child welfare,” Roche said. “Even within my family, we had the struggles of having to get support for extended family members to raise us.”

Roche eventually attended a Catholic high school. To this day, she wears a chain with a silver cross.

“And then went to Catholic University of Puerto Rico, did my bachelor’s degree in social work, and I was one of two students who got a scholarship back then to go to San Antonio, Texas, to do a mastery in social work,” Roche said.

Roche studied at Our Lady of the Lake University. She worked as an intern with Mexican-American families, and with her master’s degree, returned to Puerto Rico, where she taught at the Catholic university.

“I taught social work, juvenile justice, criminal delinquency, but I really wanted to be in the practice,” Roche said.

So Roche became a chief probation officer of a juvenile court. Her job also required her to assess the needs of the families of children on probation.

Her concern?

“What will it take for a child to get better when we move children from delinquency and really do intervention with a family, a real service plan for a family?” Roche said.

Roche is a mother herself. In 1981, with one daughter — a second would come later — the family moved to Massachusetts because the father of Roche’s children got a job at the old GM plant in Framingham.

Roche began working at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. She worked her way up from social worker, to supervisor, to manager, to assistant regional director. Then she transferred to the Department of Social Services, as DCF was then called. She ran its Lawrence office but wanted to move closer to Leominster, where she lived, and took over the Fitchburg office.

Fitchburg is where, years later, the disappearance of Jeremiah would plunge Roche and her agency into controversy.

After Oliver Case, Controversy

From Fitchburg, Roche went on to run the Worcester office. Last October, Patrick appointed her DCF commissioner.

That was after the agency had announced the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver. It has led to questions about how many children in DCF care are missing.

Roche acknowledges teenagers do run away from DCF custody. But she explained many are in touch with their social worker.

“They let them know that they’re OK, they are safe, they are with friends,” Roche said. “Sometimes they run away for a couple of weeks. Sometimes they run away for a couple of days. While we don’t know specifically the address, they let us know that they’re OK.”

Asked how many teenagers are runaways right now, Roche gave an estimate.

“It’s in the vicinity of a hundred,” Roche said.

An aide held up a note with a number: 113.

“One hundred and thirteen,” she corrected herself. “I’m sorry.”

Later the number is brought up to date: 129 teenagers on the run.

“The majority, also, I wanted to say, these are 17-year-old kiddos,” Roche said. “Unfortunately we are not able to lock them up or restrain them or put them into facilities that are locked facilities, so sometimes when they are dealing with a trauma issue they just decide, ‘I can’t cope with this situation anymore,’ and they decide to run away from the facility.”

Roche said she is able within a day to determine exactly how many teenagers are missing from DCF custody. She explained that when she testified before the Legislature last month that every child DCF was serving was accounted for, she meant that there were no other cases like Jeremiah Oliver’s.

“At no time my answer was to try to mislead,” Roche said. “I thought about a 5-year-old kiddo who is at home who has been missing, and the answer was: I can guarantee.”

After Oliver’s disappearance, Roche said she asked social workers to visit all children under the age of 5.

Except for those visits, when it comes to children living with their families, DCF relies on relatives to report that a child is missing. But Oliver’s case is unique, Roche said.

“The social worker failed to do what is called monthly visits to the family for an extended period of time and didn’t know that the child was missing because he wasn’t in the home visiting with the family, despite individuals calling and making collateral contact saying, ‘The kid is not in school this year. He didn’t return to Head Start,’ ” Roche said.

Roche said the social worker’s negligence was compounded by his supervisor’s coverup, and in turn the negligence of her manager in not inquiring why the child had not been visited.

Roche said after the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, monthly visits to children’s families went up: from 82 percent to 94 percent in December.

As for those who doubt her ability to lead the DCF, she pointed to her 27 years in working at every level of the agency.

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