Embattled agency chief aims to calm union’s ire

At hearing, McClain lauds workers, vows more openness

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / November 18, 2009

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Anthony “Angelo’’ McClain, head of the state’s child-protection agency, received a stinging “no confidence’’ vote from his social workers last week, but he struck a conciliatory note before a legislative panel yesterday, saying that he was lucky to toil alongside such dedicated staff and that he hopes they will help him implement needed reforms.

“I’m really blessed to be a leader of an organization that has such incredible workers,’’ McClain said in measured tones during the five-hour hearing in which some 80 spectators, including social workers, human service providers, lawyers, and parents packed a State House room.

McClain, appointed 2 1/2 years ago to head the Department of Children and Families, has been accused by many workers of being a remote, top-down manager who seems more interested in improving agency statistics than rank-and-file morale.

He has also come under fire for rapidly unrolling major changes over the summer in the way cases are screened and investigated. Employees said that the shift caused mass confusion because they were not properly trained for the new system and that it overburdened them amid rising caseloads, staff layoffs, and deep cutbacks.

Yesterday, McClain, 52, seemed eager to show a new side. Pointing out that many spectators in the hearing room wore purple T-shirts, representing the social workers union, he declared: “Purple is beginning to become my favorite color.’’

After the hearing by the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, Zevorah Ortega-Bagni - president of the DCF chapter of the Service Employees International Union, Local 509 - said she was cautiously optimistic that McClain is serious about improving relations with workers. The union president had also testified before lawmakers, her casual, extemporaneous speaking style a sharp contrast to the commissioner’s more formal delivery of prepared remarks.

“Social workers are very oral people,’’ she said at one point, referring to what staff have called McClain’s inadequate communication skills. “We want to talk, and we want to listen.’’

Ortega-Bagni said she hoped McClain’s comments about greater openness were not simply rhetoric to help maintain his job. Her 2,700-member union, in an unprecedented move, decided last week by a 10-to-1 ratio to issue a “no confidence’’ vote in McClain’s leadership. She said the membership wants him replaced.

“His job is on the line; I know that, he knows that,’’ Ortega-Bagni said.

McClain appears to be maintaining support at the top. Though Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of health and human services, had not initially planned to be at the hearing, she showed up to introduce McClain, saying he had the support of the administration because he has “stepped up and given us results.’’

“We stand by him,’’ she declared.

Although the hearing was set up several months ago to get an update on work in the long-troubled agency, the event ended up seeming like an all-day relationship therapy session between McClain and his rank-and-file union.

Yesterday, while lawmakers repeatedly praised the dedication of social workers, they urged McClain to get outside headquarters and communicate more to the local offices. They said social workers, who deal with strained families, need to hear from him and be inspired to follow his leadership.

“Where the rubber meets the ground, are the conversations taking place?’’ asked Representative Marie St. Fleur, a Democrat representing Roxbury and Dorchester.

McClain, who vowed to get out more, said he will continue to try to convince workers of the benefits of his “Integrated Casework Practice Model.’’ One of its features is a two-track method of dealing with complaints, so that only those related to child abuse or serious child neglect are assigned a full, intense investigation. Most child neglect cases would receive a less-intense assessment by staff.

That change, among others, has rankled many social workers who say they remain confused about the legal and practical differences between these two types of inquiries. Some of McClain’s critics have also suggested that he simply wants to reduce the state’s statistics on confirmed investigations, to enhance the image of the Patrick administration.

At the hearing, union officials insisted that they are committed to reform, but want the process to go more slowly out of respect for the challenges they face.

“We’re not resistant to change with this agency,’’ Ortega-Bagni said.