DCF Commissioner Olga Roche Ousted, as Protests Continue

 

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker beat me to it. In his column, posted just this morning, Walker writes:

Yes, Olga Roche was in over her head as the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. And, yes, her forced resignation Tuesday probably needed to happen.

But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that her departure will solve the department’s myriad problems. Firing Olga Roche, to call it what it really is, isn’t going to fix a thing. The scene that’s unfolded over the past few days is as familiar as it is depressing. After months of being under fire for its shockingly incompetent handling of the Jeremiah Oliver case, the department acknowledged that two other children under its care had perished. Governor Deval Patrick reversed course Monday and refused to defend her any longer. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo demanded her ouster. So did Senate President Therese Murray. Attorney General Martha Coakley, who’s running for governor, also piled on.

Acting DCF head, Erin Deveney, was greeted to office by the “Free Justina Coalition,” who called on her to immediately release Justina Pelletier to her parents.

At the Statehouse rally on Tuesday, protesters placed hundreds of stuffed animals on the steps in their show of support for the Pelletier family. The coalition also asked DCF to disclose how much public money was expended on the care of Justina while she’s been in Massachusetts custody.

It was not a nice way for a new administrator to start her first day in office, I’m sure.

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Believe me when I say this, folks. Anyone who takes the job as head of a child protective services agency (they don’t even pretend to provide “social services” anymore) knows that part of the job description is playing a game of Time Bomb.

Remember that silly little game by Milton Bradley? You’d wind it up, and toss the thing back and forth between players, hoping not to be the one holding the thing when it – well, it didn’t really explode – it just kind of whimpered “poom” as it unwound.

Don’t worry about Olga Roche for a moment. Believe me, one of the glorious things about working in the field of human services is that there’s always a golden parachute for a failed administrator. For that matter, there’s always a golden parachute no matter what position you hold in the child welfare industry.

Just a few days ago, I wrote at some length about the notorious Munchausen’s validator Dr. Esernio-Jenssen, who was kicked out of the Queens borough of New York City by Carolyn A. Kubitschek of the law firm Lansner & Kubitschek. She was so flagrant, so obvious, so downright devious, that more than one court took judicial notice of her reputation.

Things got so out of hand that Bill A3365-2013 is currently under consideration in the New York State Assembly. The bill bears this rather concise description:

Provides that a child shall not be taken into protective custody based on an allegation that a custodial parent or guardian suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy without a family court hearing on such allegations.

You’d think that after that embarrassment, it may have ended her career. But this isn’t the world that you and I live in – this is the world of the child savers. Where did she wind up? In Florida, as Medical Director of the Gainesville Child Protection Team, with a glowing biography that makes no mention of her tenure in New York.

This is nothing new. In 2010, I wrote a piece covering former LA department head Peter Digre’s travels. First he’s hailed as a hero in Los Angeles, then LA’s despicable board of supervisors all-but-crucify him. He manages nevertheless to land on his feet time and again. One minute he’s working for MAXIMUS, the next thing you know he’s got a gig at a law center in California, then he’s in the Sunshine State near the top of the bureaucratic pyramid in Florida’s corrupt and dysfunctional child protection agency. It’s all just so amazing.

I followed that story up with another piece on Tom Morton, and various others. At the time, former Clark County Family Services Department head Susan Klein-Rothschild was abruptly ousted from her position as head of the agency, but thereafter she landed a cushy executive position in the Public Health Administration in Santa Barbara, California, “where she oversees a broad range of programs that support the health of the general population,” according to her bio at the time.

SOME PROMISING CANDIDATES

There’s a wonderful article entitled The Closing of the Massachusetts Reform Schools and the Legacy of Jerome Miller by Dan Macallair in Youth Today. Macallair most eloquently writes about the resistance that Jerome Miller met when he took over the Massachusetts reform schools:

Initially, Miller’s approach to reform followed a conventional path. He issued new policies to improve professional practice within the institutions, organized planning units to infuse a therapeutic ethos, and hired outside consultants to retrain institutional staff.

Yet, during his random and frequent visits to the institutions, Miller became increasingly frustrated with the lack of apparent progress in changing a culture that he viewed as antithetical to accepted notions of curative treatment or humane care. In spite of his best efforts, youth were still subject to an institutional culture of mistreatment, where punishments were arbitrarily imposed by line staff with little guidance or interference from indifferent administrators. Rather than embrace reform, staff initiated a campaign of organized resistance and sabotage, including the posting of escape maps on living unit bulletin boards to encourage youth to run away and undermine Miller’s management.

Miller wound up reforming the system by shutting down the entire miserable complex of reform schools. And, to ensure that they would never reopen, he not only had the buildings torn down, but he sold the properties on which the buildings sat as well.

Miller seemed just the guy to take over the District of Columbia’s troubled child protection agency – which made history by being the first in the nation to be put into full receivership by a federal judge.

“I don’t know that Jesus Christ could run that department, the way it is set up right now,” said the associate executive director of the city’s primary health care center for those with AIDS and HIV, according to the Washington Post.

“You just can’t do this 1990s kind of work with 1917 infrastructure.”1

The infrastructure may not have changed, but by then the human services bureaucracy had become far more adept at expansion and survival – two of the primary tasks of any self-respecting bureaucracy. During his first few days as receiver, the city’s child welfare bureaucrats welcomed Miller to his new position by slipping death threats under his door. To make a long story short, not even the venerable Jerome Miller was up to the arduous task of reforming that agency. By that time, the city’s political machinery had devised a structure that was every bit as resilient as it was corrupt.

Returning to Massachusetts, in 1993, Governor Weld’s Special Commission on Foster Care issued a report that a Globe editorial summarized by saying: “the commission found that children the agency is charged with protecting are subjected to abuse and neglect in its care. It found the department in a state of paralysis and disarray, unable to respond to a burgeoning caseload and plagued by everything from poor management to lousy record keeping.” Former Governor Weld, in turn, said that the report “first day in the rest of the life in the agency.”2

There was at least some passing mention of a minority report. As the Globe explained it:

The full commission did not adopt a minority report by one member, state Rep. Marie Parente (D-Milford), who stopped attending commission meetings in December due to differences with the panel. Her report, issued for her subcommittee on Parents, Foster Parents and Children, called for a stronger due-process system and less reliance on anonymous reports of abuse.3

Due process for parents? A lesser reliance on anonymous reports? No, no, no! Those reforms were passed over in favor of expanding the bureaucratic behemoth and its revenue maximization initiatives.

I was cautiously optimistic when Harry Spence took on the position of agency chief in 2001. Now, there was a man with a good head on his shoulders. As an academic, he had displayed a tremendous grasp on the reality of how things worked in the field. He had ideas that were crisp and clean.

Spence was also a very courageous man. In 2005, 4-year-old Dontel Jeffers was placed in a foster home by DSS. Eleven days later, Dontel was dead. As the Globe explained it:

Frustration and anguish poured out yesterday as a divided community tried to make sense of a death they say should not have happened. On March 6, Dontel was rushed to the hospital by his foster mother, a 24-year-old Dorchester woman, who said the boy hurt himself while jumping on a bed. But his biological family believes the bruises on his face and a swollen eye mean something different. The family contends DSS placed Dontel in a foster home where he was beaten to death.4

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Dontel Jeffers funeral at Greater Love Tabernacle Church. Photo credit: David L. Ryan, Globe staff.

Spence was invited to attend what would almost-certainly be an all black funeral – one set to be held in a predominantly black neighborhood where relations were already strained – to say the least – between DSS and the communities that it claimed to serve.

Spence rose to the occasion. Even his detractors knew that this was a deeply personal event for Spence, and none dared to take the cheap shot of calling it a publicity stunt. I suspect that some of the lower-level bureaucrats marveled at his courage – something that they knew they’d never be able to drum up in themselves were they to have been called to rise to that particular challenge. They were too accustomed to the safety of their offices; too far and too long removed from the realities of the front lines. As the Globe explained it:

While standing before the body of Dontel Jeffers, the Rev. William E. Dickerson II pointed out that DSS Commissioner Harry Spence was sitting among mourners in the church pews.

The crowd attending Dontel’s funeral at The Greater Love Tabernacle Church in Dorchester stirred. Some craned their necks, while others quietly gasped.

“I told them to come,” Dickerson said, his voice booming over the rising tensions inside the sanctuary. “This is God’s house. And I wanted them to be here because they needed to be here to understand the sentiment of this church and the pain of this family.”

It went well beyond being a strong gesture on his part. It displayed compassion, empathy, and, more importantly, that Harry Spence had a sense of humanity.

Returning to Adrian Walker’s current Globe column, he explains that: “Spence was fired by [Governor] Patrick in 2007 after a couple of high-profile disasters, even though he is now regarded as the last successful commissioner and one of the few ever.”

Perhaps the only one to have even come close to success, given the deeply entrenched nature of the modern-day child welfare bureaucracy.5

There was another little game by Mattel that I’d like to take out of my closet and try on Governor Patrick, and various members of the child protection team at Boston’Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General. I’d consider using it on some of the Bader 5 staffers, but I’m afraid they may break it by pegging its little meter too far into the red zone too fast.

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1. Vernon Loeb, “In War Over Who Rules, Hawkins Becomes Battle Symbol,” Washington Post, June 5 1996, Page A01.

2. Boston Globe, “A new day for DSS,” February 16, 1993. Editorial page.

3. Victoria Benning and Diego Ribadeneira, “DSS Wrong To Remove ‘Mikey,’ Panel Reports,” Boston Globe, February 12, 1993. Sec. Metro, p 1.

4. Megan Tench, “Mourners seek answers,” Boston Globe, March 17, 2005.

5. Spence went on to become the first appointed civilian court administrator in 2012.