Failure to Communicate: Mass. DCF Workers Are Offline

(NECN: Ally Donnelly) - Massachusetts State Police troopers have laptops in their vehicles to check the background of suspects. Firefighters have radios and EMTs can message ahead to hospitals.

In this day and age, most employees have some way to stay connected, but the front-line workers who care for the state's most vulnerable children are disconnected.

“We don't have any iPads. We don't even have laptops. We don't even have cell phones.” said Peter Mackinnon, a supervisor with the Massachusetts Department of Children’s and Families and a spokesperson for the union representing social workers.

DCF is an agency in crisis. Kids are dying. A child is missing. The public and politicians are clamoring for answers, and social workers say they've got one arm tied behind their back.

“You're just sitting there praying and waiting and hoping that you're not called and told that a kid died on your clock,” said one veteran social worker who asked us not to identify her for fear that she would lose her job.

It is one problem among many -- a lack of access to mobile technology. But social workers say it is leading to huge gaps in productivity and putting kids at risk.

For example, social workers can spend a whole day in court, waiting to testify or get a ruling about one of the more than 36,000 kids in state care.

But Mackinnon says without a computer, or even a smart phone, it's impossible to put the down-time to good use.

“That whole time you're not doing anything except sitting there,” he said.

Social workers say even if they go out and buy their own laptops, the state system is so antiquated, they can't access the network remotely. And the more time that goes by before a social worker can drive back to the office and put their information into a shared file, the greater the risk that red flags get missed.

“A child is injured, burned, hurt, shaken to death, because maybe something that you didn't get the opportunity to put in didn't get translated.” Said the veteran social worker, “No one wants to know that, ‘Oh my god,’ I didn't have the opportunity to put that in and somebody's baby is gone.’”

State Representative David Linsky is outraged.

“Every business worth its salt in this country knows how to have mobile technology,” said the Natick Democrat.

Linsky chairs the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which is leading a legislative review of DCF. He says technology struggles are nothing new in state government, but DCF needs to prioritize its spending to bring the agency into the 21st century.

“Banks do it.” he said. “Doctors do it. Hospitals do it. Every type of business in the world has figured out how to have secure systems. This isn't rocket science.”

NECN has asked repeatedly to sit down with DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, but has been told she's unavailable.

Monday, NECN talked with Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz, who says they are finally taking steps to fix the problem. He said that on Tuesday, 60 social workers would be getting new iPads with more coming this summer.

“They’ll be fully Wifi, and capable of accessing that information wherever they go throughout the Commonwealth,” he said.

It's a start, say union reps, but 60 iPads for 2,800 social workers on the street is a drop in the bucket, and they worry how functional they will be.

Polanowicz insists workers will be able to search case history, check in with collateral agencies and input dictation, but Mackinnon says only about 20 percent of the entire electronic case record is currently available online with critical information, like medical history and DCF evaluations, stuck back on the office computers.

“The consequences could be fatal,” said another unidentified social worker with a decade on the job.

The lack of technology has consequences for worker safety, as well. Massachusetts is the only state in New England that doesn't give social workers cell phones, a mobile life line in the field.

“When you put your all, your heart, your everything into this job, it's a smack in the face,” said the female social worker.

Inherently, these cases are emotionally charged, often involving families with histories of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug abuse or mental health issues. Social workers go into homes and remove kids and typically don't have police back up.

“Two women, 3 o'clock in the morning, 4 o'clock in the morning, knocking on people's doors, looking for children, and we're out in the streets by ourselves, not even a cell phone that we can access,” said the female worker.

“Ummm, it does,” said Secretary Polanowicz when asked if that seemed like a bad idea.

Last quarter, about 70 social workers reported being threatened or assaulted on the job, but workers tell us incidents are wildly under-reported. They say colleagues have been kicked, punched, spit on and attacked by older kids being put into group homes.

“The kid is in the back seat, they pull the seat belt up around [the social worker’s] neck as they're driving down the highway,” said Mackinnon describing one such situation.

In Lowell, a social worker had to remove kids from a home, and Mackinnon said the family chased her.

“They surrounded the worker's car and pulled the kids out,” he said. “We eventually were able to contact the police, but the police said, 'why didn't you call 911?' They didn't have the cell phone to be able to do it.”

A cell phone to protect themselves and others, and a network to protect the children in their care, children like 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver - missing, feared dead.

A spokesperson for HHS did contact NECN late in the day to say district offices have shared cell phones that social workers can use when making home visits, but social workers tell NECN they are not convenient or accessible enough to be practical resources.

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