There's a new boss at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families after Olga Roche, the embattled commissioner, resigned Tuesday. Her department and her leadership have been under intense scrutiny following the deaths of three children.
The disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg last fall put a spotlight on the DCF and Roche. The boy's family was under the supervision of the department when he disappeared. The social worker assigned to the case skipped home visits.
As Jeremiah remained missing, Gov. Deval Patrick defended Roche for months, and refused to accept her offer to resign.
"She’s … dealing with the most difficult families, the most difficult children in some of the most difficult circumstances," Patrick said in February.
"If I thought her resignation was the best thing for the children of the commonwealth, I'd ask for her resignation," he said on Boston Public Radio.
“I think she has shown that she’s prepared to step up and be accountable,” Patrick said in January.
But the news in recent days was too much. Oliver's body was found on the roadside two weeks ago.
And this past weekend, a 2-week-old baby from Fitchburg died; her family was being monitored by DCF. In an unrelated case, department officials overlooked a fax from a police officer, saying a newborn in Grafton was in potential danger. She died before DCF followed up.
Quickly, leaders of the House and Senate pulled any lingering support for Roche.
“I am angered to see this continuing to happen," said Speaker Robert DeLeo. "It shows to me complete mismanagement on behalf of DCF."
Patrick responded yesterday by finally accepting Roche’s resignation.
“With some 33 years of experience in social services, Commissioner Roche has the expertise to lead this agency," he said. "She can no longer command the trust of the public or the confidence of the line staff”
Patrick said Roche gets blamed for everything — at times unfairly, he implied — and has become a distraction.
Peter MacKinnon, with the union of social workers, says when Roche took over the department a year ago this month, his members were excited because she rose through the ranks from front-line social worker.
“We saw this as an opportunity to move DCF forward to a different place," he said. "When caseloads kept going up, and when things got worse and morale got worse, people were really disheartened."
MacKinnon says Roche’s departure will hopefully let the department move on to institute needed reforms and investments. Already in recent months, the state authorized the hiring of more social workers and updating the technology they use in the field.
Phil Johnston, the former Secretary of Health and Human services, who oversaw DCF in the 1980s, says the recent tragedies under the department's watch haven’t been Roche's fault.
“I don’t think her dismissal and the appointment of a new commissioner is going to solve any of the structural problems that exist in the department, many of which have to do with underfunding,” he said.
The DCF budget has been slashed over the past six years. State spending on welfare programs has decreased by 12 percent during Patrick’s tenure. The governor's budget proposal includes more money for DCF and lawmakers are likely to give the department even more than Patrick asked for.
“We all need to remember DCF has been suffering from systemic failures and that needs to be acknowledged,” said state Sen. Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester, the Republican leader in the Senate.
Tarr says Roche’s resignation is a good first step towards reforming the department but it can’t be the only step.
Patrick named Erin Deveney to lead DCF as interim commissioner. Deveney previously served as general counsel at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and has spent just the past month at DCF.
Patrick talked up her managerial skills and brushed aside a question about her lack of experience in social work.