(State House News Service) --Massachusetts social workers plan informational pickets in the days leading up to next week's release of the Senate budget, claiming an exodus of workers, lack of continued investments, and new directives are leaving child protection caseloads at crisis levels.
The current state budget invested an additional $15 million in the Department of Children and Families and a spokesman for the union that represents workers said 500 new employees were hired with those funds. But Jason Stephany said the agency also lost 300 workers, including many who departed due to job-related stress, and workers who remain have seen a spike in new cases in the wake of the Jeremiah Oliver tragedy.
According to the Child Welfare League of America report submitted to former Gov. Deval Patrick, the Department of Children and Families "sustained major budget cuts" between fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2012. The report came in the wake of the death of the 5-year-old Oliver, and the group said the department, which monitors abuse and neglect cases, should have known sooner that the boy was missing.
"We're 18 months out from the Oliver situation and the numbers have not slowed down," Jason Stephany, a spokesman for SEIU Local 509, told the News Service during an interview Monday morning.
Agency workers in Pittsfield plan to hold an informational picket at noon outside the DCF's Eagle Street offices on Monday. A dozen worksite actions are planned in the coming weeks, including Tuesday in Fall River, Thursday in Cambridge and Friday in Lowell.
The fiscal 2016 budget offered by Gov. Charlie Baker in March and the redraft of that bill approved by the Massachusetts House last week preserve the investments in this year's budget, Stephany said, but fall short of needed investments. Rep. James O'Day (D-West Boylston) pushed for larger investments in the House, said Stephany, who said he was not certain who would press for DCF funding in the Senate.
An additional $29 million is needed to meet the goal of lowering caseloads to a 15 to 1 ratio for each social worker, he said, asserting that many workers are carrying 20- or 25-family workloads.
"We're not anywhere close to 15 to 1, even on average," he said.
At the informational pickets, DCF workers plan to describe the situations they face on the job. "These are folks who are incredibly concerned with the children that are in their care," Stephany said.
Gov. Charlie Baker last year included child protection and welfare as a priority during his successful campaign for governor, often tangling over that issue with his chief competitor, Democrat Martha Coakley.
During an interview in March, Baker said DCF had received a "significant" budget increase and was implementing "a ton of new technology." He called Linda Spears, who joined his administration after studying DCF while at the Child Welfare League of America, "the right person for the job," adding, "You've got to give us a little time to get our own people in there and pursue our own plans."
Stephany said he agrees that Baker's team deserves time to tackle the agency's problems, but noted the importance of state budget talks.
"This is a fiscal document that is going to have a profound implication for the next 12 months," he said. "These kids can't wait for next spring or next summer"