Study: Overhauling Two-Tiered Case Intake System Is Key to DCF Reform

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Troubled agency also needs technology infrastructure changes including creation of management dashboard

BOSTON – In late September, the Baker administration announced that, going forward, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) will make children’s well-being its top priority in determining response options to alleged maltreatment of children.  According to a new study published by Pioneer Institute, this change in DCF’s mission will require that the state overhaul its two-tiered case intake system with particular focus on the assessment track to which low- and moderate-risk cases are supposed to be assigned.

“Jeremiah Oliver was not the only tragic case assigned to the low-risk track,” said Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios. “According to press estimates, 10 children on that track died from 2009 through 2013; seven of them in 2013 alone.”

Current DCF practices call for assigning a case to either the investigation or assessment track within 24 hours of a call reporting maltreatment, meaning the decision is often based on little more than the hotline call.

DCF’s practice model uses a “Differential Response” system, which is an outgrowth of a national movement to make family preservation, not child protection, the top priority of child services agencies around the country.  Unfortunately, the model has led to problems in a number of states, including Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Virginia and Wyoming.

Matthew Blackbourn and Gregory Sullivan, the authors of “Driving Critical Reforms at DCF:  Ideas for a Direction Forward in Massachusetts’ Child and Family Services,” recommend maintaining a two-tiered system but incorporating elements of the traditional investigation track in assessment track cases.

Before track assignments are made, families’ past interactions with DCF should be reviewed, along with court records. The agency should also reach out to available collateral resources such as extended family members, caseworkers, teachers and mental health professionals.

Children who are alleged victims of maltreatment should be interviewed first and separately from their parents or guardians before track assignment, the report recommends.

Currently, families on the assessment track can refuse services.  Such refusal should trigger a follow-up to determine if the case should be moved to the investigation track. Once a case on the assessment track is closed, it should continue to be monitored for at least 12 months.

The authors also call for significant changes to DCF’s technology infrastructure, including predictive analytic tools and the creation of a management dashboard to better organize data such as case information from case workers and supervisors.

Implementing the report’s recommendations may require additional resources. The DCF Continuous Quality Improvement Team that is currently being assembled should analyze the need for relevant resources and estimate any additional costs.

About the Authors

Matthew Blackbourn is Pioneer’s Research & Operations Associate. Matt manages Pioneer’s Better Government Competition outreach effort, and its internship program. He is also involved with the Institute’s government transparency initiative and assists with research for the Center for Better Government. Matt holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy from Tulane University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude.

Gregory W. Sullivan is Pioneer’s Research Director, and oversees the Centers for Better Government and Economic Opportunity. Prior to joining Pioneer, Sullivan served two five-year terms as Inspector General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was a 17-year member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Greg is a Certified Fraud Investigator, and holds degrees from Harvard College, The Kennedy School of Public Administration, and the Sloan School at MIT.

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.