Testimony of Commissioner Olga Roche, Department of Children and Families House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Thursday, January 23, 2014

Good morning. My name is Olga Roche, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. I want to thank Chairs Linsky and Khan, and members of the committees, for inviting me to discuss our agency’s work in the protection of over 100,000 children and youth we serve each year while strengthening families across the Commonwealth.

Per your request, we have provided the committees with documents on our policies and organizational structure and I’m happy to address additional questions following my testimony.

I was born in the Bronx and raised in Puerto Rico as one of four children of a teenage mother. I was raised in part by my grandmother and great-grandmother in a situation similar to what many of the children at DCF face. After completing my Master’s Degree, I came to Massachusetts to raise my family and continue my career.

I have a deep understanding of the challenges of our families and bring this perspective to every decision I make as commissioner. I have proudly served the Commonwealth for over 30 years, starting as a social worker in the Department of Youth Services and moving to DCF, where I have continued my career in social services.

As a mother, a former social worker, and since October, as Commissioner of DCF, my passion has been strengthening families and helping children thrive. I can only begin to say how deeply saddened we are by the Oliver case. This is a troubling case for all of us, and we have been doing everything in our power to work with law enforcement in their search for Jeremiah.

Both our internal investigation and the Office of the Child Advocate’s report on the Oliver case revealed that the individuals charged with the care of Jeremiah and his family failed to meet their basic responsibilities to check on the family. This was a gross disregard of duty and we took swift action to remove those accountable from their jobs.

While the family received appropriate services initially, after the case was transferred to a different area office staff missed multiple opportunities to visit with the family and conduct further follow-up. After our review, we immediately sent teams of social workers out to check on all other children under the supervision of this caseworker and supervisor and found them to be safe.

I launched additional actions to strengthen engagement with children and families, including enhanced case reviews and additional communications with school districts.

I directed staff to screen in for investigation all allegations of abuse or neglect involving children age five and younger with young parents; or parents of any age who have a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, or unresolved childhood trauma.

In addition to these steps, Health and Human Services’ Secretary John Polanowicz asked the Child Welfare League of America to do an independent review of broad areas of DCF’s practices. CWLA has been provided with the flexibility and latitude they need to conduct a thorough review and will be interfacing with members of the Legislature as they work to develop action steps going forward.

We look forward to reviewing those recommendations in concert with the findings that will be generated by your respective committees..

We understand that there are always opportunities to improve our system of care, and the investments recently announced by Governor Patrick will help us keep this progress going to ensure the very best for our children.

We are pleased that the Governor’s $9.2 million FY15 budget investment for the Department will allow us to enhance our infrastructure and staffing. We will also make additional investments in technology to better serve families and keep children safe. I look forward to working with the Legislature to support these shared goals.

The Governor’s budget invests in staffing that will allow the Department to move forward with the goals outlined in the 15 Families Memorandum of Understanding signed last year between DCF and SEIU 509. The 15 Families plan will be implemented over the coming years in accordance with the agreement by meeting additional staff needs to achieve our 15 to 1 caseload goals. This is also one of the priority recommendations of the Child Advocate.

Our front line workers deserve all the support we can provide, and that is why we are moving forward with this plan as well as operational enhancement and additional technology solutions.

Providing new technology solutions for workers will allow them to access DCF case files remotely in the field, enhancing their ability to communicate and record information on families, eliminating lag time in processing reports. This will also allow workers to quickly access sensitive and historical information and better communicate with our law enforcement partners.

Lastly, the funding will allow the Department to implement the additional actions I have directed and mentioned earlier such as screening for investigation allegations of abuse involving children under the age of five, enhanced case reviews, and additional communications with school districts. Our mission is to protect children who become victims in vulnerable situations due to circumstances beyond their control. Many of these circumstances are related to a lack of parental capacity due to substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence and the parents' own unresolved childhood trauma.

These are difficult issues. To protect children and keep them safe, we work hard to stabilize and preserve families that are in danger of falling apart, to reunite families that have fractured, and to find permanent, loving homes for children through adoption and guardianship.

We are also responsible for making the difficult decision to remove children from their homes when there is sufficient evidence of abuse or neglect. This is one of the most difficult decisions we make in government, and not one that we take lightly.

I am proud to have led our efforts at DCF to develop and implement kinship practices, which looks to extended family members for support when biological parents cannot assume the primary caretaking role, or when they need assistance. In addition, we have implemented other nationally recognized practices to improve our assessment, evaluation and safety practices.

We have made great strides recently to expand kinship placements, increase adoptions and guardianships, and reduce the number of children in foster care, residential and group homes and psychiatric settings.

These best practices I have mentioned have been carefully developed in partnership with legislators, advocates and stakeholders — and have contributed to Massachusetts being ranked third in the nation in overall child well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

As Governor Patrick has said, “DCF performs miracles every day — hundreds and hundreds of miracles that don't always get the attention, but do earn the respect of the public.”

But, as Commissioner, I know that to earn that respect, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that a tragedy like the disappearance of young Jeremiah Oliver never happens again.

I thank you for your commitment to these shared goals and hope you will join me in supporting these investments to ensure that the Department has every tool at its disposal necessary to succeed in preserving the safety and well-being of children and families.

Thank you.

This information is provided by the Department of Children and Families.