Local officials: Whole system needs changes
Observers and child advocates Tuesday were pleased with Department of Children & Families Commissioner Olga Roche’s resignation but only see it as a single chess move.
Reforms in leadership style, management and institutional practices are also necessary to protect children in the future, they said.
“Frankly, I’m much more interested in a change in the way DCF does business rather than a change in personnel,” Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong said. “So the jury is still out for me.”
The resignation was announced by Executive Office of Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz and Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday morning. They named Erin Deveney as the interim commissioner to lead the department during a search for a permanent successor.
Roche had previously offered her resignation, but Patrick said he rejected it until it became obvious that she had lost public support.
Roche’s resignation should only be the first step in the reformation of the DCF, said Miguel Fleitas, who organized most of the search for Jeremiah Oliver.
Jeremiah was the 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who disappeared in September and whose body was found last week off Interstate 190 in Sterling. His disappearance was not reported to authorities until December. He and his siblings had been under DCF care.
“I am happy that she is gone,” Fleitas said of Roche. “I always thought, since the whole Jeremiah story began, that she was incompetent doing her job running such a system, but I don’t believe by replacing her with somebody else, the system is going to change overnight.”
There are political and institutional changes still needed, he added.
Fleitas is proposing that DCF be empowered with special police officers who travel with social workers on visits to high-crime neighborhoods or dangerous homes. The officers could also visit homes between visits by social workers, Fleitas said.
Fleitas wants the state to hire special investigators to find the 134 children missing in the system, rather than further burdening police departments.
Laurie Myers, founder of Community VOICES and a victim advocate from Chelmsford, said she is glad Roche finally decided to resign. The priority must be the well-being of the children, she said.
The resignation was necessary, Myers said, because there has been a lack of accountability in the department, and Roche wouldn’t take responsibility for the policy and procedural issues that came to light with Jeremiah’s case.
It has taken several years for the system to crumble, so it will take a while before it can be built up again, Myers said.
There were a number of issues that contributed to the department’s problems, including understaffing, but Roche refused to acknowledge them, she added.
The state needs to make a careful search for Roche’s replacement, Myers said, adding that the department needs a wholly different leadership style.
“It took since 2007-2008 to get it this way, so I think we need someone with some strong leadership skills to evaluate the issues and move forward,” she said. “What I don’t want to happen is the next commissioner to come in and toe the line, the same talking points as Olga Roche.”
Roche’s resignation highlights the department’s lack of leadership and the caseload it faces, so this is the time for a review of the department, said state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan.
“It’s just very clear this agency needs a top-to-bottom review,” the Leominster Democrat said.
Political changes are coming with the election of a new governor in November, so the state needs to guard against letting reforms slip away, she said.
Communities need to be sensitive to the needs of children and look for ways to help them, Flanagan said.
“I think we really need to heighten awareness of what is going on around us and the children in our communities and what they might be going through,” she said.
The Legislature is doing its part to help by increasing funding to help caseworkers, but the biggest issue is leadership, state Rep. Stephen DiNatale said.
The Fitchburg Democrat signed on to a letter calling for Roche’s resignation more than two months ago.
“We need new eyes on this and probably somebody with stronger management background,” he said.
Some of the issues with the department have more to do with employees doing their jobs, and that’s where the leadership issue plays in, DiNatale said.
Wong said the state needs to spend energy and resources looking for solutions to the social ills that require DCF intervention.
The state shouldn’t just treat the symptoms but also the root causes, she said.
“Frankly, I think we need to talk more about a world in which we need less DCF, not more DCF,” Wong said. “I’m more concerned about the system as a whole and not just who’s in charge. The bottom line is, a 5-year-old boy is dead, and nothing they can do can bring him back or fully heal a community.”