Monday, March 3, 2014


For the past two months, the press, the legislature, the child welfare world and the public has focused on the startling news of the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year old boy whose family had a history of being involved with child protective service agencies. The shocking nature of this story can leave one wondering. How could this happen? Where were the school authorities? Where was the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the neighbors, the family members? We look for answers, as we should, and at the same time we look for quick fixes. From my perspective, there are no simple solutions, including the loud call to fire the Commissioner of DCF. It is true that the system, as devoted as it is to protecting children and strengthening families, can and does err in its efforts to live up to these critical goals.

 A huge error occurred in the case of young Jeremiah Oliver, a child who is now presumed dead. When an error such as this is uncovered, the system is then bound and committed to find out how it happened and who is responsible. Beyond holding individuals responsible for their actions, the system must ask what safeguards are now needed to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

This is the process happening right now. Not only is DCF performing an internal investigation but the Office of the Child Advocate as well as the Legislature and the Child Welfare League of America are performing separate investigations. My Letter to the Editor (below) recently sent to both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald conveys NASW's current perspective on the situation. We must avoid quick fixes and knee jerk reactions, trading them instead for thoughtful, diligent actions.

I am in regular communication with DCF, SEIU Local 509 (Social Work Union), and the Office of the Child Advocate to see how we can support the professionalization of the workforce in child welfare. Together we want to strengthen the safety net of care for those children and families involved with DCF and end the destructive negative messaging that is impacting everyone involved.

Often times it is easy to come up with what seems like a quick fix for highly complicated issues, with the impulse to “do something” crowding out more deliberate efforts to address the root of the problem. This pattern has persisted in the three recent cases involving the Department of Children and Families. The inclination to “fire the Commissioner” may make some feel better, but that knee-jerk reaction diverts attention from the more pressing conversation about DCF’s service delivery to families who have experienced generations of abuse, violence, or neglect. The Governor, legislators and the social workers most familiar with these families’ cases need to evaluate what went wrong and how to put mechanisms in place to assure that it will not happen again. The Child Welfare League of America, the Office of the Child Advocate, and the experienced professional social workers at DCF are working in concert to uncover and address the deficiencies in a complex system that allowed for these heartrending situations. Let the child welfare advocates do their work so the children, youth, and families of Massachusetts can experience a stronger safety net of care.

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