, Salem, MA

February 28, 2014

Our view: Technology upgrade is part of solution to state's child welfare woes

The Salem News

---- — It’s hardly encouraging to hear the state’s Early Education and Care commissioner suggest that the effectiveness of the system he heads suffers from the same technological obstacles that make it difficult for social workers within the embattled Department of Children and Families (DCF) to work with “real-time” information.

Yet, that is a claim of Tom Weber, who heads the early Education and Care program and made those remarks earlier this week in response to a report from a special state commission.

Noting that the technology systems utilized by DCF and Early Education are legacy systems — some more than 10 years old — Weber told the State House News Service that, while his department has a lot of data about providers and licensees who serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers, the agency’s field staffers often need to return to their office computers to obtain it or enter data on paper forms.

“We need to be really taking advantage of mobile devices,” he said — and he makes a valid point.

But neither he nor other state officials — up to and including Gov. Deval Patrick — can really believe that upgrading the state’s technology systems will be the key to resolving DCF’s and other early-childhood shortcomings, can they?

A 2013 Child Care Aware report ranked Massachusetts as second in the nation for child care program standards, but 48th for program oversight. That shows a bureaucracy that needs wholesale changes in focus and format, not just more staff and a computer system upgrade.

And amid all the rhetoric, let’s not forget the tragic case that launched all of this — the disappearance and feared death of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, who had been under DCF supervision, or lack thereof, in Fitchburg. The child’s mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., stand accused of child endangerment.

The Department of Early Education and Care licenses and regulates 11,000 family, group and school-age early education and care programs and nearly 700 residential care programs and adoption/foster care placement agencies. And it, like the DCF, is seen as grossly short-handed.

To reach recommended program-to-licensor ratios, the department would need 70 additional family child care licensors and 31 center-based licensors, at costs of $3.85 million and $1.7 million, respectively, according to a new report from a state commission looking into the state’s child care services.

Weber said that lawmakers should also preserve funding in budget talks that allowed 10 additional staffers to be hired this fiscal year to handle background checks. He added that the agency has a “terrific partnership” with the Sex Offender Registry Board but reiterated that facilitating the department’s direct access to the board’s database would be an improvement — and that may well be a valid point.

But high turnover and low salaries among early-education program staff and a list of 40,000 income-eligible youngsters waiting for vouchers remain major problems, Weber said. Also, the agency is trying to ensure stronger, “supportive child care” for about 5,000 children involved with DCF. And the special commission estimated the cost of addressing the full wait list at $303 million.

But would any of that ensure that DCF’s poor oversight in the Oliver case could not be repeated? That can only come through a thorough overhaul of the state’s child care oversight format.

The apparent tragic loss of Jeremiah Oliver and the other problems confronted by DCF and the state’s related child-care agencies are not obstacles the state can solve solely by throwing more money and people at them.

They require fundamental changes from the top down — and it’s time the governor and our state lawmakers recognized that.