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Editorial: Ensuring the protection of children

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is the state agency charged, according to its website, “... with protecting children from abuse and neglect and strengthening families.”

Whatever complications the agency and its employees face in following through on that charge — from totally dysfunctional families to manpower shortages, whatever — DCF must perform its duties to perfection because anything less can have terrible consequences.

The public was well aware that DCF had failed one child, Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg, who was under DCF care when he vanished, a disappearance that the agency didn’t know about until his sister told a teacher. The 5-year-old’s body was recently found buried in Sterling.

This tragedy should have been the jolt necessary to get DCF, the governor and Legislature all on one page. Within DCF, it meant making sure that nothing like the fate that befell Jeremiah could happen again. For the governor and lawmakers, it meant identifying reforms and putting them on the fast track.

And for DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, it meant providing the kind of immediate leadership where the motivation was to be the most powerful advocate for children in the commonwealth.

Instead, DCF failed with two more children.

A 2-week-old baby in Fitchburg, who child welfare officials were monitoring, died. And then a baby in Grafton, just 4 weeks old, died despite DCF being alerted by police via fax about potential harm to it. According to published reports, the fax was misplaced for six days.

Following justifiable outcry — including having the attorney general, House speaker and Senate president call for her removal — Roche has resigned.

But that alone won’t serve as the fix for DCF.

We hope, as Gov. Deval Patrick promised following Roche’s resignation, that means “The focus of our collective attention and effort must be on protecting children under DCF’s care. ...”

This means identifying and instituting necessary reforms within the agency — quickly. Better communication and a systematic procedure for monitoring cases are the type of improvements that can be put in place by a strong and competent manager, regardless of background. One would like to think that Erin Deveney, a lawyer who has spent most of the last decade at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and has been now transferred to lead DCF, will be that kind of person.

Deveney’s work here, though, needs the attention and support of the governor’s office and Legislature, even as they search for a more permanent replacement.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it most certainly takes the different branches of state government working together to see that the agency entrusted with protecting that child operates as it should.

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