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Baker Announces Policy Changes For State's Embattled Child Welfare Agency

Gov. Charlie Baker announced major policy changes for the beleaguered Department of Children and Families on Tuesday that he says will give social workers a "standardized playbook" for decision making and oversight.

A new intake policy will update and make more clear procedures for screening and investigating reports of abuse or neglect, and a new supervision policy, which state officials say is the agency's first ever, clarifies under what circumstances cases should be elevated for higher review.

"We must give the people who work at the department the tools and the guidance they need to help every family that is in need of our assistance," Baker said during a press conference Tuesday alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, DCF Commissioner Linda Spears and the SEIU Local 509's DCF chapter president, Peter MacKinnon.

The new guidelines eliminate the practice of initially dividing cases into high and low risk categories. A report from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting that was published by The Boston Globe in September found that 10 children assigned to the low risk category died between 2009 and 2013.

MacKinnon, with the social worker's union, says this change ensures every family will be treated the same.

"They won't be sent one way if they have this criteria and this way if they have another one," MacKinnon said. "Everyone gets the same attention, the same investigation, and then decisions are made based on data in front of you, not on speculation."

Baker first outlined these and other reforms back in September. The new policies reflect various issues raised following the recent death or severe injury of several children who were at some point under DCF supervision.

Some of the specific policy updates include:

-- non-emergency reports of abuse or neglect must be reviewed in one business day rather than three

-- workers must review all prior involvement a child or caregiver had with DCF when a new complaint is received, including information from other state child welfare agencies

-- background checks must be conducted on all parents, caregivers and household members over 15 years old

-- workers must request from law enforcement information about police responses to the residence of any child/family involved in an abuse report

-- investigators are now allowed to search online resources for information "relevant to assessing child safety"

-- social workers must receive one hour per week of individual supervision and one hour per month of group supervision

-- each case must be discussed with a supervisor at least once a month

Secretary Sudders said Tuesday that work continues on several other reforms outlined in September, including reducing the backlog of foster home applicants, recruiting new staff and getting caseloads down.

More than 3,000 social workers and supervisors will begin to receive training on the policies outlined Tuesday in January, with the guidelines expected to be in place statewide by February.

With reporting by WBUR's Steve Brown

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