Schools head criticizes child welfare agency


BOSTON (AP) -- The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is again coming under scrutiny over complaints that it’s been slow to follow up on reports of suspected child abuse.

On Tuesday, Gov. Deval Patrick said Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Rote was meeting with the Northbridge superintendent of schools to discuss concerns that the agency’s local office failed to respond to school officials’ concerns about the well-being of some children.

Northbridge Superintendent Nancy Spitulnik said in a letter to Roche last month that social workers and supervisors regularly closed serious cases because parents refused to cooperate and refused to accept an alleged abuse or neglect report filed when a student had missed more than 75 days of school.

Spitulnik also said in the letter that the office failed to follow up with a homeless student; breached confidentiality in telling a parent which school staff member filed an abuse or neglect report, leading to threats and harassment; and waited until 13 such filings had been filed in one year before a student was removed from the home, according to The Telegram & Gazette (

The Northbridge School District serves approximately 2,600 students.

The child welfare agency has recently come under fire for alleged negligence in the disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, who hasn’t been seen since September and is presumed dead. Three workers at the agency’s Leominster office were fired, while the boy’s mother and her boyfriend are facing charges.

Patrick said that while most social workers "perform miracles every day," concerns like those expressed by Spitulnik need to be investigated.

"When concerns of that gravity are raised you better believe we follow up and I expect the commissioner to do what she has done in the past which is take them very seriously," Patrick told reporters Tuesday.

In a separate letter to Roche, Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray said that if the allegations raised by Spitulnik are true, DCF should remove the managers in charge of the Whitinsville office.

State Sen. Richard Moore said it’s critical that educators, who are mandated to report suspected cases of child abuse, feel their concerns are followed up on.

"If the school principals or teachers are initiating a complaint as they are required to do by law and then they don’t see anything happening, they are going to feel ‘why am I putting myself on the line to say that when nothing gets done?’," said Moore, a Democrat whose district includes Northbridge.

He suggested part of the problem may be the level of each social worker’s caseload and said the administration should request more resources from lawmakers if they are needed.

Also Tuesday, Attorney General Martha Coakley proposed creating a separate child protection division within DCF to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect with a sole focus on the safety of the children involved.

Coakley said the department’s dual mandate -- both to protect children while also strengthening families -- can create tensions for workers who must balance concerns about the safety of a child against the imperative of keeping families together.

"Right now, a child who is the victim of abuse or neglect may not have someone involved in his or her case who looks out only for the child’s safety," Coakley said, adding that "the current structure of DCF puts children at risk."


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