25 Investigates: Ex-DCF employee says it’s not unusual for case workers to miss 51A response times

DCF office that was supposed to check on Cassidy Baracka before her death received the most 51As in the state last year

After 25 Investigates reported on the death of 7-year-old Cassidy Baracka, who had a 51A filed on her behalf a week before she died, a former case worker with the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) contacted us. She had concern about the child’s case.

A 51A is a form filed by a mandated reporter or other individual reporting suspected abuse or neglect of a child. According to DCF’s own policies, a social worker must assess and respond to a 51A within in three days, or within hours if the case is deemed an emergency.

But as we first reported, Cassidy died one week after a mandated reporter filed a 51A about her living conditions. A DCF social worker didn’t visit her home until after the agency learned of her death, which according to an autopsy, was the result of complications from COVID-19.

The case worker we spoke to was employed for three years at the Greater Lowell office, the same office that investigated Cassidy’s case, and says she was not surprised by our report. We sat down with her in an attempt to learn what may have gone wrong in Cassidy’s case.

“I wasn’t surprised, at all. That’s the norm. That happens all the time,” said Chelsie Burland. “When someone calls in because maybe they saw hoarding there’s usually about 10 other issues behind that hoarding piece that DCF needs to look into.”

Burland says she left DCF because the job stress was affecting her mental health. We verified her employment through on-line state payroll records, which indicate she worked at the Greater Lowell office from 2014 to 2017 and used her maiden name at the time.

“It was near impossible to keep up by just working your normal hours. It was just the guilt of knowing there was a kid I didn’t get to see that month and [wondering] ‘Are they okay?’” Burland said.

As 25 Investigates reported, an EMT filed a 51A report on January 11 alleging hoarding conditions in the Groton home Cassidy and her mother lived in. Cassidy died on January 18th. A DCF visit was not made until right after her death.

According to Burland, overwhelmed workers at the Greater Lowell office often struggled to keep up with caseloads and 51A response times were often missed.

“More often than not, we did not meet those timeframes. You did not know how many days would pass. It was tough because you had so many cases. And if you would go and nobody was home, you’d leave a note or you would call the school, that basically counted as effort towards seeing that kid,” she recalled.

We repeatedly asked DCF about why their own protocol wasn’t followed in Cassidy’s case. Citing privacy concerns, they agency would not comment on this or any DCF case.

The Greater Lowell DCF office is one of the busiest office in the state. According to SEIU 509, the union that represents DCF social workers, that office received the most abuse and neglect reports in the state during 2021. On average, it received 381 reports per month over a 12 month period.

Two DCF offices in Western Massachusetts received similarly high volumes of 51As last year. The Van Wart Springfield office had 301 and the Springfield office had 331, according to union records.

There are currently 9 vacancies at the Greater Lowell office, per DCF.

Earlier this year, the union called on the Baker administration to provide more resources and reduce caseloads across the state.

In response to our interview with Chelsie Burland, a DCF spokesperson pointed to changes implemented under Governor Charlie Baker since 2015. Those include: a 42% funding increase, a 21% increase in social workers and news procedures put in place to guide the “review and investigation of reports of abuse or neglect.”

Burland says that while those changes were helpful more needs to be done to support DCF workers.

“I do think that they have made great attempts to fix things and give us that support. But at the end of the day, if you have thousands of reports coming in, that’s the thing you can’t control,” adding that she worries her former colleagues may soon reach a breaking point. " They’re burning out and there’s just no catching up.”

Download the FREE Boston 25 News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Boston 25 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch Boston 25 News NOW