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Group issues Mass. child welfare recommendations

BOSTON — Giving smartphones to social workers and taking photos of all children who enter state care are among the recommendations of an independent group examining Massachusetts’ child welfare system.

The group also recommends heightened monitoring of foster homes and staffing levels of no more than a dozen cases assigned to a single social worker in the assessment stage and no more than 17 for ongoing cases.

The Department of Children and Families has been under scrutiny since social workers lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who has not been seen since September and is feared dead.

Gov. Deval Patrick asked the Child Welfare League of America to review the agency.

In an initial report released Thursday, the group said giving handheld devices to social workers would give them access to real-time case files, and taking photos of children in the system would help track runaways.

The report also recommends heightened case monitoring, home visitation and supervision for children placed with foster parents with felony backgrounds who had been given waivers. The heightened review should take into account the nature of a crime, the circumstances of the crime, and the amount of time that has passed since the crime occurred, the report said.

The report said the state should adopt standards being drafted by national groups, such as the American Bar Association. Some of those standards would bar individuals from serving as foster parents if they have a felony conviction for child abuse or neglect, spousal abuse, crimes against children, or for committing violent crimes, including rape, sexual assault, or homicide.

“There is a clear contrast between the situation we have today and the system we need to have,” state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said.

The report also recommends DCF require medical screenings of children within 72 hours of placement and a more comprehensive exam within 30 days. DCF’s existing policy is to arrange for medical screenings within seven days of custody and a complete examination within 30 days of placement.

State Secretary of Human Services John Polanowicz said the department already is moving ahead with some of the recommendations.

“We did not want ... to wait until either an interim or progress report or a final report in order for us to begin that process,” he said. “The work is too important.”

Polanowicz said 60 electronic tablets are going to on-call supervisors at the agency. He said all social workers — about 2,500 — will be given tablets this year that will allow them to communicate faster and upload current photos of children.

He also said the agency is adding staff. He said an additional 90 employees have been hired this year and another 177 should be added during the new fiscal year.

Polanowicz also defended Patrick’s decision to retain DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, saying she “is incredibly focused on the safety of the children here in the commonwealth.”

Jason Stephany, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Human Service Workers Union, SEIU Local 509 said the report “reinforces the real and immediate need to address the systemic challenges front-line social workers have raised for many years.”

The report did not include specific recommendations related to the Oliver case.

Three DCF employees — a social worker, a supervisor and an area manager — were fired after an internal investigation. Officials said a social worker did not make required monthly visits to the family.

Jeremiah’s mother and her boyfriend have pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with the case.

The review was expected to cost $40,000. The final report is due mid-May.

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