Coakley — one of five Democrats vying for the party’s nomination — today unveiled the proposal for a so-called Child Protection Division inside DCF, which has come under fire after a Fitchburg boy it was supposed to protect went missing and is now feared dead.
In a statement, Coakley’s campaign said the agency’s current twin mandates of protecting children but also keeping families together “creates enormous tension” among workers and supervisors, and that the “inherent conflict … increases the risk that a child will be left in an abusive or neglectful environment for too long.”
“Right now, a child who is the victim of abuse or neglect may not have someone involved in his or her case who looks out only for the child’s safety,” Coakley said. “During my career, I have seen, day in and day out, how the current structure of DCF puts children at risk and overburdens social workers; the creation of an independent Child Protection Division will go a long way towards addressing these issues.”
Coakley said she would maintain DCF’s current process of screening abuse claims, some of which are referred to the local district attorney’s office while the majority are investigated by DCF. But those children that are “at risk of continued abuse and neglect” would have their cases referred to the new unit, which would have a “singular focus on the welfare” of the child.
Once a probe is complete, the case could take various paths: it could be sent to the DA; the state could move to remove the child from the home; or if the unit determines there is no “imminent risk,” DCF would provide services to the family.
Three workers have been fired and a fourth has been suspended in the wake of the case of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, who was last seen by a relative in September. DCF officials, despite overseeing the family since 2011, didn’t learn of his disappearance until last month.
Patrick said last week that the problems the case raised are “not systemic,” but skeptical lawmakers are planning to haul officials into legislative hearings to dig deeper into what went wrong.
The governor has questioned DCF’s process of screening potential foster parents after an independent report revealed that the state fielded 70 cases of abuse and neglect inside foster homes in 2012.