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The embattled head of Massachusetts' child welfare agency resigned Tuesday under intense scrutiny of the department following the unrelated deaths of three children, with Gov. Deval Patrick saying it was impossible for her to continue in the job.
Olga Roche's resignation comes after calls from top Democratic lawmakers — including Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray — for Roche to be replaced as commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.
"I have accepted her resignation because I believe it is not possible for the agency to move forward in this environment with her at the helm," said John Polanowicz, secretary of the state's Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the DCF.
Erin Deveney, who joined the agency March 31 as deputy commissioner for operations, was named to lead DCF on an interim basis until a permanent commissioner is named. Deveney formerly served as general counsel at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Patrick said he had previously declined Roche's offers to step down, but it was now clear that while she had the expertise to do the job, she no longer had the support of the public or many in her own department.
"I don't think the time is right, but it's necessary," he said. "She cannot garner the confidence of the public or her line staff."
The three recent deaths involved a 4-week-old baby from Grafton, a 2-week-old baby from Fitchburg and 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg, whose body was found by the side of a highway this month and whose family had been under DCF supervision at the time of his disappearance last year.
In the Grafton case, DCF has said that a fax sent to the agency by Grafton police concerning possible harm to the baby, Aliana Lavigne, was misplaced for six days.
Patrick on Tuesday faulted police for not calling the agency directly to report the information, but he also said the fax should have been acted on immediately.
"Somebody in that agency read that fax and didn't deal with it," the governor said. He later clarified that he did not know who specifically might have seen the fax when it arrived.
Polanowicz said the message, when it was discovered, was treated as a non-emergency call because there was no indication from the police report that the child was in any imminent danger.
The Grafton police chief acknowledged police should have called DCF, but he also defended his officers, saying the agency was trying to deflect blame.
In the third case, 2-week-old Bailey Irish of Fitchburg was brought to the hospital on Saturday morning by her parents and pronounced dead a short time later. The baby's family was being monitored by child welfare officials.
The deaths of the infants remain under investigation, according to the Worcester district attorney's office.
Jeremiah's case had prompted multiple inquiries even before the discovery of the child's body. Relatives said the boy had not been seen since September but police did not learn of the disappearance until months later. The boy's mother and her boyfriend have pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with the case.
Three DCF employees were fired and a fourth was disciplined after an investigation found that a social worker assigned to the family had missed several scheduled visits and agency staff missed other opportunities to engage with the family.
Roche, who had more than 30 years of experience in social services for the state, assured legislators in January that all other young children whose families were being monitored by DCF had been accounted for.
Deveney said her immediate priorities included the hiring of more staff to reduce caseloads and implementing mobile technology to improve communication with social workers in the field.
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat who publicly called for Roche's resignation on Monday, said in a statement Tuesday that new leadership at the agency was only a first step.
"DCF is an agency in crisis; and we must immediately undertake the difficult, but crucial, task of creating an effective structure of protection and care for our most vulnerable children," DeLeo said.
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