America’s Hidden Heroes and Other Reflections

The following is a particularly thoughtful column by the Boston Globe’s Larry Harmon.  The immediate subject is an analysis of the complications inherent in assisting children in high-risk families.  Perhaps, Larry suggests, no matter what philosophy agencies follow, such as “kin first” in MA, under current assumptions some children will die each year while under state supervision.  The column’s secondary point is a refection on the difficulty of finding high-quality administrators to run child welfare agencies.

Larry also points up other large matters, both directly and by implication. Here are a few.

1.  Millions of little children in the US even get to sniff adolescence and adulthood because of the courageous work of tens of thousands of social workers.  Women make up about 90% of social workers in child welfare agencies.  I can remember being invited by the visionary former Commissioner Harry Spence to participate in a panel on child welfare, on behalf of the youth development initiative of the Boston Police Department.    Eben knowing that child welfare is a woman’s game I was moved to look out at hundreds of  young faces and think just how  young and how flat-out courageous they were (are).

2.  All social workers who do their jobs well suffer secondary trauma in working with families saturated in trauma.  As we do with police and nurses, we do NOT ONE THING to provide education and assistance to them.  They suffer and leave or they suffer and stay around to get further damaged.  When they  get damaged and they stay around they slough the most traumatizing cases onto the last hired.  Ms. Rookie then suffers and leaves or…you have the picture.

3.  Child welfare agencies exist for the larger public as a place to put endangered kids we don’t want to think about. Let’s face it, 95% of us only think about child welfare when something horrifying and altogether predictable happens to a child under supervision.  It’s very similar to the experience of police and how society views mental illness and deviance among less affluent individuals and families.  We have mental health for the better-off; we call the cops for the less affluent and wash our hands of their care once we can safely label their behavior “crime.”  We get the child welfare commissioners we want; not the commissioners the children deserve.  Harry Spence was an anomaly’s anomaly in the job.

4.  In earlier posts I suggested police administrators recruit among child welfare social workers.  Especially if we really want to raise the proportion of women in policing from its current 12% or so.  I repeat that idea here.  These women certainly know how to handle themselves in one of the situations of greatest peril to police: the dysfunctional family.

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At DCF, death’s sad calculation

By Lawrence Harmon | GLOBE COLUMNIST FEBRUARY 22, 2014

CHILD WELFARE commissioner Olga Roche is a well-liked, long-time human service administrator who was probably in over her head on day one last spring when she took over the state Department of Children and Families. It’s an axiom of state government that governors in the waning months of their final term don’t have a huge talent pool to draw from. That helps explain how she got tapped for the job.

Legislators and others started calling for Roche’s head soon after the discovery in December that 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg had gone missing while under the supervision of DCF. He is presumed dead. Several months, it turned out, had passed without the required home visits by a DCF social worker. Jeremiah’s mother and her boyfriend have been charged with the boy’s disappearance. The case drove home earlier reports that DCF social workers fail to make one in five of their required monthly home visits to abused and neglected children.

The sad truth of DCF is that children will die on the watch of even the most able public administrator. Firing Roche won’t change that fact. Death is actually baked into the system. It may be possible to diminish the number of deaths. But some are inevitable as long as the department maintains its underlying philosophy of “kin first’’ that keeps abused and neglected children in their homes — usually with social services — whenever possible.

Here’s the basic dilemma: Numerous studies show that children removed from their homes and placed in foster care are more likely to be delinquent, imprisoned, and impregnated with no means of support down the road than children who remain in troubled families. Strange as it seems, uncaring mothers and loutish fathers produce better outcomes for kids than foster placements. This is the foundation of the Massachusetts child welfare system.

In such a system, the DCF commissioner is forced to play god. The DCF universe is about 36,000 children. About 7,000 of them will be in a foster home or outside placement at any given time. In 2012, DCF officials said that the vast majority of them will return home within a year. So how many child deaths annually must a commissioner risk at the hands of parents or other adults in the home in order to reduce the likelihood that thousands of other children will suffer a miserable existence some 10 or 20 years later? The answer is eight to ten dead kids, on average. If a commissioner can’t make peace with that, he or she can’t function.

Strange as it seems, uncaring mothers and loutish fathers produce better outcomes for kids than foster placements.

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Outside of the military, it’s hard to think of another American institution where the preservation of human life is deemed secondary to the overall success of the mission. And none of these kids signed up to live in chaotic homes.

What if the department ran perfectly under the “kin first’’ model? Every social worker made their monthly visits on time. Every supervisor was a sage. Caseloads were low. Technology was up to date. DCF no longer needed to depend on lots of young, inexperienced social workers because the knees of the veterans didn’t blow out after years of carrying kids up and down the stairs of triple deckers. How many deaths then? Four? Five? No one really believes it is possible to get that number down to zero in an agency that deals with so much family pathology.

About 10 years ago, former commissioner Harry Spence tried to improve the department’s safety record by creating teams of five social workers who took responsibility for combined caseloads of a manageable size. They had flexibility to prioritize the cases and make sure that no single worker got hit with a disproportionate number of tough assignments. Staffers got to share strategies with each other instead of reporting solely to a harried supervisor. It was promising. But the effort fell apart when Spence, who is regarded as one of the top public administrators in the country, got pushed aside in 2007 by the newly elected Governor Patrick. Like Roche, Spence had become radioactive in the wake of controversial deaths and injuries to children under the department’s supervision. It happens to the best of them.

If Roche is staying on the job, she should try to reinstitute that team approach. It might save the life of at least one youngster. If Roche is driven out, Patrick will have no choice but to tap another mid-level bureaucrat. That won’t help. The best hope now rests with a new governor who brings his or her A team to focus on the saddest problem and worst state job in Massachusetts.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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