Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Commissioner Roche cannot end DCF crisis


The disappearance of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver sometime between September and December 2013 touched off a crisis at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). Criticism has been non-stop, much of it waged at DCF Commissioner Olga Roche but also at our seemingly lightly engaged governor and the state's oversight agencies.

To be fair, Commissioner Roche has been in the driver's seat for a short time. Secretary of Health and Human Services, John Polanowicz, promoted her to acting commissioner in April 2013 following a six-year stint by Commissioner Angelo McClain. The secretary then removed "acting" from Roche's title in October 2013, ironically during the time when Jeremiah Oliver was missing and his DCF case worker was skipping required home visits.

Laying blame is an interesting exercise, one that gets a great deal of press and generates reams of letters to the editor, but it does not solve the problem. It is clear that the DCF requires strong leadership, someone with the skills to promptly assess key areas of organizational and personnel failings, and with the power to make the necessary changes without undue interference from labor interests--those negotiations can come later.

Even if Commissioner Roche's background and skill set matched what is necessary to rescue the DCF, she would not be in a position to execute the plan. The department's shortcomings certainly fall heavily on McClain, but being the watch commander while the agency came unraveled eliminates Roche from the list turnaround candidates. This is further illustrated by the "no confidence" letter signed by many of the DCF's caseworkers.

Now is the time for Commissioner Roche to step down, with or without Governor Deval Patrick's acceptance, and for the governor to appoint a recognized leader who can manage the process of bringing the DCF back from disarray to refocus on its mission. The temptation to ride out the situation until our new governor is sworn in on the first Thursday in January may be strong, but it is a reckless course of inaction that would not serve the constituents of the DCF, our most vulnerable children.

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