Many years ago when I started at the Boston Police Department as the media relations director I got a call from my counterpart at DSS, the Department of Social Services, the name at the time for the child protective services agency in Mass. He joked that as much flak as I was going to get as the police mouthpiece, it could never be the worst. That was his role at DSS.
Nothing has changed since.
DSS, now DCF, personnel make a lot of consequential decisions, When someone screws up the stakes are always high. The fall-out is proportional. The DCF workers and bosses who neglected Jeremiah Oliver deserved to get discharged. (As a subscriber I don’t need the papers to give me quite so many days of his family failing to note that they failed to notice a baby missing from their lives). But day in and night out the great majority of DCF workers are saving the children the rest of us get to ignore. They have saved a lot of lives, many more than they will ever take credit for, let along receive credit for.
So here’s to restoring the balance. A great day-in-the life piece by WGBH Radio
A Day In The Life Of A DCF Caseworker
By ADAM REILLY, WGBH Radio, 2/6/14
Colleen Pritoni’s days as a DCF social worker tend to be packed, and this Monday was no exception. Pritoni spent the morning on call at Brockton Juvenile Court. She also placed an infant in foster care, and ran a support group for grandparents raising their grandkids in the early evening.
We caught up with Pritoni in the middle of the day, hen she was headed to a meeting with a Weymouth couple who’d asked for help with their two troubled children.
“Since July, the girl has been in and out of 3 different placements,” Pritoni explained. “She’s had a lot of behavior issues…. She’s had brief periods of stability and been able to come home — and then, you know, another explosive incident in the home, and she was placed out of the home again.”
“Her brother, who’s younger, is in a group home, and he has significant behavior issues, mental health issues,” Pritoni added. “The girl’s much more expressive and verbal, so you know what’s on her mind. The boy internalizes more, and when he has an explosive incident, it’s much more destructive and harmful, to himself and his family.”
When we arrived at the scene of Pritoni’s visit, the parents she was working with agreed to let us sit in on their meeting as long as they weren’t identified. While they seemed genuinely happy to see, Pritoni, the mood turned darker as they discussed their children.
For the boy, the mother explained, school is an ongoing struggle.
“He’s still, ‘I hate school,’” she told Pritoni. “[He says] the law says he has to go. He doesn’t have to do the work.”
“Oh, OK,” Pritoni said with a bemused chuckle.
But there was also a bit of good news.
“I guess he’s doing good in one of his classes, math,” the mother added. “And I guess it’s with one of the toughest teachers in the school.”
Meanwhile, over the weekend, the visit the couple’s daughter had made home from her foster-care placement had ended badly. She stormed out of the house, and her father had to track her down.
“So Dad went looking for her and found her,” the mother recalled. “And I asked her to get into the car when she came around to the car. She said ‘I’m not going.’ And I threatened to call the police.”
“And that’s what got her in the car?” Pritoni asked.
“That’s what got her in the car, kicking and screaming.”
Amid all this dysfunction, though, Pritoni saw signs of progress. The father said he’d start attending a parenting class, and the mother seemed to be growing more assertive with her kids.
Afterward, as she headed back to her office for a brief respite, Pritoni accentuated the positive.
“It went well, it went really well,” she said of the meeting. “This is a family who’s easy to work with. They’re looking forward to services. And they understand that the department is really trying to help them with their kids in order to get their kids home.”
And at this particular point in time, that came as a welcome morale boost.
“It’s an incredible burden to leave at the end of the day, hoping the work you’ve done that day and the intervention you’ve done on behalf of children and families has kept a child safe,” Pritoni said. “It’s a difficult task. And it’s not something that I think any of us take lightly.”
Pritoni feels that in the wake of Jeremiah Oliver’s tragic disappearance, DCF and its staff are being unfairly maligned. And she’s not the only employee who’s feeling frustrated by the anti-DCF backlash.
Michelle Frasca, who’s been a DCF caseworker for 18 years, says she routinely puts herself in jeopardy while working in the field.
“I go into homes with people that have just ben released from jail. I go into homes where there’s a lot of drug activity, and sex offenders,” Frasca says. “I’m going into these homes alone.”
And, she adds, removing kids from unsafe homes takes a heavy emotional toll.
“Having to physically take that child, and having to explain to that child as they’re crying for their mother why I’m doing this, [trying] to comfort them while all the while not letting my emotions get involved—it’s hard.”
Adding to the challenge, Frasca says, is a growing caseload that makes her job even tougher.
“As the climate has changed in our society…in unemployment and lack of services available, there’s been an increase in families being filed on, and an increase in social workers’ cases,” Frasca says. “We used to be at 15 [cases]. Now, as I said to you earlier, I’m at 21 and a half.”
But the big frustration for both Frasca and Pritoni seems to be the notion that DCF is a cold, uncaring bureaucracy.
In her experience, Pritoni says, nothing could be further from the truth.
“When something sad or tragic does happen, you know, everyone gets painted in the same brush, and I think that’s very unfortunate,” Pritoni says.
“I think of the kids I work with as ‘my kids’— everyone who works with kids refers to them as ‘my kids,’ she adds. “And I get upset and defensive when I hear other people putting down social workers as being incompetent and not caring. Because we do.”