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Both budgets proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick and House lawmakers would increase funding at the state Department of Children and Families by $9.2 million to allow the agency to hire 175 new social workers and supervisors.
But workers at DCF's Boston office say that money would only mitigate the problem, not solve it.
"We have some offices where people are up to 26, 27 cases," said Robert Bulloch — the regional vice president for SEIU Local 509, which represents DCF social workers — at a Boston rally Wednesday.
Union officials say the department needs an additional $17 million — beyond the $9.2 million proposed in the two budgets — to hire a total of about 380 new workers. They say that would bring caseload levels to the industry-accepted guideline of no more than 15 cases per person.
"We try our best, but we need the numbers," Bulloch said. "We need the people to keep kids safe. One person cannot do it by themselves."
The concern over caseloads came to a head after the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, of Fitchburg. Jeremiah was last seen by extended family members in September, but was not reported missing until December. A subsequent investigation found that the worker assigned to his case, who is supposed to make monthly visits, had not seen him in six months.
Last week, Jeremiah's body was found off Route 190 in Sterling. Oliver's mother, 28-year-old Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Alberto Sierra, have been charged in connection with his disappearance, though neither are facing murder charges.
Three other people are charged with misleading police in the case.
In a statement, DCF the agency said: "We share the goal of helping our social workers gain the resources they need to succeed," citing increased funding in budget proposals and a supplemental budget passed by the Legislature.
The statement did not address the union's request for even more funding.