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Patrick freezes
DSS cash

Romney had also held money meant to reduce caseloads


The Patriot Ledger

Gov. Deval Patrick has quietly extended a Romney administration freeze on money appropriated last year to reduce high caseloads at the overburdened Department of Social Services. Commissioner Harry Spence has appealed to administration officials to lift the freeze. “Caseloads are rising rapidly, and we’re very concerned,” Spence said Thursday, March 15.

“We have said (to administration officials) that this is getting critical.”

As of Jan. 31, more than one-third of the state’s 1,800 social workers were carrying more than the 18-case maximum set by their union contract. The Child Welfare League recommends a maximum of 15 cases.

MATTHEW HEALEY/
For The Patriot Ledger
Social Services Commissioner
Harry Spence

Jose Martinez, a spokesman for Patrick, could not immediately provide information.

Ed Malloy, head of the Department of Social Services unit of Service Employees International Union Local 509, said he was shocked to find out that Patrick maintained the freeze.

Seventy percent of social workers now exceed the 15-case standard, Malloy said.

“To not spend money that’s already been allocated by the Legislature could be seen to be unconscionable,” he said. “I thought kids were our priority.”

Patrick’s extension of the freeze was not disclosed at last month’s hearings of the Legislature’s Special Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, at which Spence outlined plans to make more nurses, doctors and psychiatrists available to assess children with mental or physical illness.

The hearing came in the wake of the death of 4-year-old Rebecca Riley. She died in Hull on Dec. 13 and her parents, Michael Riley, 34, and Carolyn Riley, 32, are charged with killing her by repeatedly giving her overdoses of clonidine, a blood-pressure drug used to treat mental illness in children.

At the time of the hearing, Patrick said: “I’m very concerned about the Rebecca Riley case. I’m concerned about whether the recommendations that were brought forward after the Haleigh Poutre case were actually implemented,” referring to another case of child abuse for which the DSS came under intense criticism.

The Legislature appropriated money to hire an additional 160 social workers this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Romney ordered a freeze on the money and also restricted the total number of employees, Spence said.

Patrick kept the limit in place.

“This is so important that it ought to be an exception,” Spence said.

Spence also said the department will probably need $10 million to $11 million more this year to cover additional demand for services and other additional costs.

Patrick’s proposed budget for fiscal 2008 would cut spending for residential services such as group homes by $4 million, which will end up affecting services to children living at home, Spence said.

Sue Reinert may be reached at sreinert@ledger.com.