Survey finds low morale, high stress among Department of Children and Families workers

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BOSTON — Employees of the state's child welfare agency suffer from low morale, heavy caseloads and poor working conditions, according to a report based on a confidential survey of more than 1,500 agency workers.

The survey was commissioned by the Legislature following the disappearance and death of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose family was being monitored by the state Department of Children and Families.

The Office of the Child Advocate sent an interim report to the Legislature on Tuesday.

Employees complained of lack of oversight and bureaucratic policies driven by fear.

"This environment is dangerous, and it is a tragedy waiting to happen. Please help us get to a place where we can safely manage our cases before another child dies and we are blamed," wrote one worker.

Workers complained of stress and burnout.

"In my 20-plus years of DCF, this has been the most stressful, trying time I've ever experienced," one worker wrote.

The agency was described by another as "a rudderless ship" with long waiting lists for trauma therapy, substance abuse treatment and other services.

Workers said they were stressed out by handling as many as 20 cases at once, far more than the maximum of 15 recommended, and complained of some agency offices infested with rodents and insects, and with broken computers, furniture and toilets.

Not all the news was bad. Many workers said they are committed to their work and believe in the agency's mission.

Marylou Sudders, secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees the agency, says changes are already being made based on the survey.

"We value our workers and their commitment to DCF and children," she said. "As a result of the survey findings, we are taking immediate action, including evaluating and inspecting all leases and offices used by DCF staff, and making cellphones available to those workers who need them."

The agency is also looking at ways to reduce caseloads, she said.

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