The state's social workers have overwhelmingly voted "no confidence" in Commissioner Anthony "Angelo" McClain of the state Department of Children and Families.
Members of the union representing about 2,700 social workers voted by almost a 10-1 margin that they had no confidence in McClain.
McClain said the vote is a wake-up call that he can do a better job communicating, but he does not plan to back down from some of the changes he has been pushing at the former Department of Social Services.
Peter MacKinnon, a supervisor in the Department of Children and Families' Lowell office, said McClain's initiatives are ill-timed, coming amid increased economic stresses on families, state budget cuts and layoffs.
"You have those things going on and you add in an attempt to try to change the way the agency operates, it's a recipe for disaster," MacKinnon said. "We're worried something will slip through the cracks — despite everyone's best efforts — and a child is going to get hurt or, God forbid, will die."
MacKinnon said the main problem is new assessment tools social workers are using to determine whether a child is at risk. MacKinnon said the tools mean more paperwork and keep social workers from using their expertise.
"The tool may give you a score that says that they're at high risk for abusing their children and even though you've met with them and know that's not the case for any number of reasons that can't be accounted for in the tools," MacKinnon said. "The concern is we'll be doing social work to the tools and it will take that human element out of it."
The union that took the no-confidence vote, the Service Employees International Union Chapter 509, said now is not the time to change how workers do their jobs. More than 200 social workers have been laid off this year because of state budget cuts, and the union said that has caused an all-time high case load for social workers — about 20 children each.
McClain said the department has needed to update its procedures for years. He said the new tools provide guidelines about how and when to help at-risk families and argued the department needs a standardized method of dealing with the 70,000 complaints of abuse and neglect it investigates each year.
"Change is hard for people, especially in stressful times where there is reduced budgets," McClain said. "The natural reaction is to say, 'Why are we doing this now? Can't we wait for things to get better?' And my response is, no, we can't wait. I haven't said, 'Trust me on this,' but we have to move forward."
McClain said he is not going to back down from initiatives that he said were largely requested by the people DCF serves.
"In some ways, there are two voices not in this discussion: those of families and children," McClain said. "I don't have a monopoly on speaking for children and youth. We had family members on all of our planning groups and a lot of the model represents what families wanted."
McClain still has some supporters. On Friday, Gov. Deval Patrick touted the agency's annual statistical report and said the agency is moving in the right direction.
Erin Berger, an intake investigations supervisor at the DCF Arlington office, said the new assessment tools McClain is pushing are helpful and make her job easier.
"The commissioner has come out to meet us all. He came out recently and spent time with us, talking (with) us about the process," Berger said. "He's been really involved with our office and receptive to the feedback we've been giving him. So we here have had a positive experience with him."
McClain will defend his tenure at the Department of Children and Families at a previously scheduled State House hearing Tuesday.
This program aired on November 16, 2009.