Second of two parts.
The Patriot Ledger
They didn’t know the family, but news that a 4-year-old Hull girl under state Department of Social Services supervision had died came as no real surprise.
“Understanding some of the severe cases that DSS has, we felt any number of them could have blown up like that - due to a lack of support services,” said Pat Daly, executive director of the South Shore Community Action Program in Plymouth.
In interviews after the Dec. 13 death of Rebecca Riley, staff at a half-dozen area nonprofit agencies stressed that state social workers sometimes have “an impossible job” working with increasingly troubled families and limited resources.
“They can’t have social workers in every troubled home in Massachusetts,” said Harry Shulman, president of South Shore Mental Health in Quincy.
With extra state, federal and private funding, social service agencies can provide extra services to troubled families. Some of those services:
Preschool and daycare
Consultation with a nurse and a nutritionist
Support in parenting skills
Transportation to school, counseling, medical appointments
The chance to volunteer and have classroom role models of how to handle conflicts
An aide to come into the home
Parent group support meetings
A buddies program for fathers
Help with literacy, learning how to read stories to children and how to spend time on quieting activities
The programs either are not funded by the state or, if they are, too few openings are allowed.
South Shore Head Start and Child Care, for example, has just two openings to give extra services to families in trouble. The agency could use 10 times as many slots for the 300 children it serves in Plymouth, Marshfield and Kingston.
South Shore Mental Health in Quincy was approved a year ago for seven new programs to give families in crisis intensive case management - “almost like sending in an additional family member to help the family with daily tasks,” Shulman said.
Only two of the seven programs have been funded.
“I would like to see the state continue to fund the transition to community-based services that it has approved for us but not funded,” Shulman said.
With too few options, workers can be forced to pick and choose among competing needs - leaving potentially explosive situations without effective help. A cycle of domestic violence and neglect can be passed from generation to generation.
“These families need help with very basic daily things, like how to parent better,” said Ed Malloy, president of Local 509 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents DSS social workers on the South Shore.
“They need to have someone come into the home and help them organize.”
Before the ‘crisis point’
Malloy said the federal Head Start program provides the help many families need.
“Head Start workers see the family situation every day,” he said. “They can see when parents or kids are struggling and need some extra help - before it reaches a crisis point, and without the stigma of a DSS investigation.”
South Shore Head Start serves 184 children in Plymouth, 72 in Marshfield and 40 in Kingston. The two supportive care slots will pay for extra services to ease family pressures and keep kids safe. A worker may come to the home. Transportation may be provided to school, day care or counseling.
Head Start Director Jennifer Swinhart could easily fill 21 supportive care slots right now.
“Some families, the stronger ones, openly tell us that they are DSS cases, and those are just the ones Head Start knows about,” Swinhart said.
“Many families don’t tell us, and DSS doesn’t tell us, and that is what is so scary,” Daly said. “What better place for a high-risk child and family to come than a Head Start program, with all the supportive services?”
Quincy Community Action Programs also runs Head Start programs in Quincy, Weymouth, Braintree, Hull and Milton.
Over the past two years, the state Department of Social Services, under Commissioner Harry Spence, has slowly been moving to develop more programs in the community.
It is a new model, “Harry Spence’s vision,” and the purpose is to build on strengths in a family, according to Ken Tarabelli, executive director of Bay State Community Services in Quincy and Plymouth.
Bay State is among 14 lead agencies statewide that DSS has contracted with to decide which community programs get state funds. These lead agencies work closely with and even have staff in the DSS area offices.
That has drawn criticism from the DSS social workers’ union, which believe money is being diverted from services to administration.
“DSS has the vision, but it has not always asked for the funding or the staffing to make it happen,” Malloy said. “DSS has created a new bureaucracy, which seems to have diverted money from the service account.”
“This is a five-year plan, and we are only in the second year, so you have to be fair to DSS,” he said. “The lead agencies don’t just decide on the money. We know the community resources and what else is out there.”
If a program doesn’t exist, Tarabelli may find someone who can create it.
“We need programs that think outside of the box,” said Daurice Cox, director of clinical services at Bay State. “If a mother isn’t bringing a child in for counseling because she has to bring all four kids on a bus to get one of them here, it doesn’t mean she is a bad mother. It means she needs transportation.”
On the South Shore, Bay State works with other local nonprofits, such as the South Shore YMCA, that provide services, some for free.
Yet some local agencies say better communication from DSS would help.
Manet Community Health Center in Quincy cares for some families who receive DSS services. Chief Operating Officer Jane Maffie-Lee said the federally approved health center is required by law to report any case it sees of possible child abuse or neglect. But that can be a one-way street, she said.
“DSS is not prevented by law from telling a program that there are concerns in a family,” Maffie-Lee said. “We might be able to suggest resources.”
Local agencies and legislators have been baffled by actions at the state level. Last fall, the state Department of Social Services returned about $24 million in unspent money to the Legislature. That astonished some providers of care.
“It takes your breath away,” Daly said. “Why return that money when we sit here with all these unmet needs in kids?”
Sue Scheible may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.