United front: From left, Gov. Charlie Baker, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudder, SEIU 509 President Peter McKinnon and DCF Commissioner Linda Spears.

Credit: Mike Deehan / WGBH News

Will Union Backing Help Governor Baker Improve Child Safety At DCF?

September 28, 2015

As problems within the state's child care agency deepen, Gov. Charlie Baker is stepping on the gas with efforts to reform the Department of Children and Families. But unlike the other items on the governor's Beacon Hill fix-it list (notably the MBTA), this time Baker's got the union in step behind him.

SEIU Local 509, which represents 2900 of the state's frontline social workers, has had a seat at the table in discussing the needs of the DCF since Baker took office in January, chapter president Peter MacKinnon said Monday. MacKinnon appeared alongside Baker and DCF Commissioner Linda Spears at a press conference to announce new initiatives to clarify and improve the agency's core mission to protect children.

Baker wants to refocus the entire agency on keeping children safe and laid out a plan Monday to give DCF's case intake policy it's first update in ten years, as well as to integrate more data on risk and safety into procedures. The ultimate goal, Baker says, is to reduce caseloads for social workers from the current statewide average of 27.7 cases per worker, to 18 to one.

"While I don't expect the ship to turn tomorrow, I do believe the following: Despite all of the reports and studies that have been done over the past decade concerning shortcomings at DCF, there has not been a coordinated, sustained effort to bake improvements and reforms into the daily operations of the department. The mission statement has been confusing and in the absence of an overall playbook, concerning all aspects of case practice, very hard to deliver on," Baker said at a Monday press conference.

The change comes as Baker struggles to correct and modernize practices at DCF, which has let a number of high profile cases through the cracks. Two-year old Bella Bond, who prosecutors say was murdered by her mother's boyfriend and had been under DCF oversight, is the latest in an alarming list of youngsters who have suffered or died while under state care.

Union members flanked MacKinnon and Baker's team during the heavily-covered media conference Monday morning. Case workers, Baker and others who spoke all wore purple - the color of not only SEIU, but the hue that's also come to represent bipartisan collaboration for the greater good.

It's unlikely that the governor will be joined onstage by the leaders of the union at the heart of one of the other major agencies he's trying to fix, the MBTA's Carmen local 589. That's because unlike the case of DCF, where most parties have been in agreement on what to do to fix problems, the Carmen have rejected many of Baker's prescriptions such as privatizing some bus services and his refusal to immediately add new revenue for the T.

MacKinnon says he's encouraged by Baker's dedication to righting the DCF ship, which both union and administration sides described as the product of decades of patchwork fixes and reforms that never stuck.

MacKinnon, a 17-year veteran social worker, says working with Baker feels different from dealing with other administrations, like former governors Mitt Romney or Deval Patrick.

"There seems to be a sincere desire to get this right, not just put the band-aid on but really dig in deep to the system to fix what is at it's core," MacKinnon told reporters after the press conference.

Now that front line workers and union representatives are working side-by-side with executive branch leadership, stakeholders are aware that this time, they really do need to hold all parties accountable in order to make the chances they virtually all agree need to take affect.

"Time will tell for sure, we would hold the governor accountable just as we would any elected official to do what's right and to do what's right for kids. But what I can say is that the tone of the conversation is completely different than it has been in years, so that can leave us with nothing but hope moving forward," MacKinnon said.

Somewhat similarly to the MBTA, Baker is open to additional funding for DCF, but wants to make sure reforms are in place as well. To get to the goal of caseloads at 18-to-one, Baker said he will make the math work.

"We will figure out how to fund what we need to fund to make the agency successful," Baker said.

Many of Baker's DCF reforms are to go into effect immediately, but longer-term goals like reopening the Western Massachusetts office and reworking the department's intake policies will take more time, he said.

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