Baker budget increases fuel new hiring at DCF

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SPRINGFIELD, MASS., FEB. 16, 2016…..Forced to reassess itself following high-profile deaths in recent years, the agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect has hired hundreds of new workers and, based on Gov. Charlie Baker’s latest budget, could reach a two-year hiring total of 600 new positions.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Linda Spears, who reviewed the agency in her prior role at the Child Welfare League of America, told legislative budget-writers Tuesday the agency has updated many policies and will be in compliance with a 2014 licensure law later this year.

Spears said Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal – which would give the child protection agency an additional $30.5 million in a lean budget year – would support a director for each of the department’s 29 area offices

Baker’s budget also transfers $24.2 million in domestic violence services contracts from the Department of Children and Families to the Department of Public Health. Those contracts provide service regardless of DCF status, Spears said. After accounting for that offloading of costs, which Spears said DPH supports, the children and families budget would increase $54.7 million, or 6 percent, over last year’s budget.

The governor also asked for another $15 million for the Department of Children and Families in a mid-year fiscal 2016 spending bill filed Friday that was referred on Tuesday to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The department has updated its protective intake policy – something Baker has highlighted – and established a supervision policy for cases that need higher-level review.

Saying the department needs to focus on the fundamentals of its mission, Spears likened past practice to “eating dessert before you get to the meal.”

The new policy “allows us to get out on cases more quickly” and creates a review for “complex cases,” Spears told reporters. She said training of staff in both of those new policies has already begun.

Spears reported that the percentage of licensed social worker staff at the department is at 90 percent, up from 44 percent a year ago. The fiscal 2015 budget directed the commissioner to require the licensure of social workers.

The department also hired a social worker licensing coordinator to track licensure and expects to achieve full licensure by October, according to Spears.

Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, recalled an incident where she said a child was born addicted to drugs and was then reunified with the mother after a short period.

Spears said there has “not been a common protocol” for reunification, but that is “on the table for discussion.”

Lovely also questioned the lack of drug-testing, asking, “Why is that when you know the child was born to a drug-addicted mother?”

Spears said drug tests can be faked and are unreliable, and noted many people in drug treatment are already undergoing testing.

“Mandates for drug testing are complicated,” Spears told reporters.

The department is hiring new medical social workers for each of the area offices and five additional substance abuse coordinators. An additional 270 social workers have been hired so far this fiscal year, Spears said. Between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017 – Baker’s first two budget years as governor – the department plans to have hired more than 600 new staff.

As state government trimmed its ranks through an early retirement incentive program last year, the Department of Children and Families backfilled all the vacated positions, according to Spears’s written testimony. The department has also teamed up with the social worker union SEIU 509 on “retention strategies” and is developing a plan to retain and train foster parents.

Linda Sagor is the Department of Children and Families first full-time medical director, overseeing compliance with requirements for medical screenings and consulting on complex medical cases, Spears said.

In the first half of fiscal 2016, there has been a 13.8 percent increase in adoptions compared to the first six months of fiscal 2015, according to Spears’s testimony. Spears said the increase is likely related to more children entering the system in recent years.

With a goal of a weighted 18-to-1 caseload ratio for social workers, Spears said the department was at “19.3, 19.4” as of September.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service

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