News & Events

Social workers oppose leader

Union musters no confidence in state agency chief

By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff  |  November 16, 2009

The union representing 2,700 social workers and staff for the state’s child-protection agency has voted by a nearly 10-1 ratio to declare no confidence in Commissioner Anthony “Angelo’’ McClain, an unprecedented move for the agency.

The vote sets the stage for what is likely to be a tense State House hearing tomorrow in which he is slated to defend his tenure.

“The membership wants him replaced,’’ said Zevorah Ortega-Bagni, union chapter president, yesterday after ballots from last week’s voting were tallied. “The membership does not feel he’s attuned to the needs of the children and families that we care for – or for the work we do.’’

Reached by telephone yesterday, McClain said he knew the union had held a vote last week, but he had not been given the final results. When told about the ratio of the vote by his staff at the Department of Children and Families, he said he sees it as a wake-up call to become a better communicator about the work of the agency.

He said the vote would be more painful to him if he did not see such critical progress in such areas as foster care, adoption, and mental health services for needy children.

“I need to do more communicating with people,’’ said McClain, who was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick 2 1/2 years ago to run the agency, formerly known as the Department of Social Services. “I don’t take it personally, but I do internalize some of it.’’

McClain appears to have support at the top. Patrick issued a press release Friday outlining the major results of the agency’s annual statistical report saying, “the Department of Children and Families is clearly moving in the right direction.’’ He congratulated McClain and the social workers for their hard work.

The 52-year-old commissioner was initially viewed by many social workers as bringing a strong insiders’ perspective to the $136,000-a-year job; he is a former social worker who spent his teen years at a Texas ranch for troubled youths. McClain insisted that he still brings the value of these important experiences to his work, and attributed his declining popularity to low staff morale from cutbacks and layoffs, and resistance to the speed at which he has implemented numerous reforms.

“We’re pushing change in a way that hasn’t been pushed before,’’ said McClain.

But union officials said the “no confidence’’ vote in McClain is not about obstructing reforms. It is, they said, about McClain’s ability to lead the agency that oversees the care of some 40,000 children, including 10,000 foster children. They described him as a statistics-driven leader who, despite his background, fails to show the rank-and-file that he respects the difficulty of their work.

Many veteran social workers have also said they disagree with the substance of McClain’s initiatives, including the way he has changed the method of assessing and investigating cases. Ortega-Bagni said the agency’s social workers should not be asked to take on major new reforms, with minimal training, when their ranks are shrinking.

McClain is among the first scheduled to testify tomorrow morning at a State House hearing by the legislative committee that oversees the agency. The meeting had been scheduled weeks ago for lawmakers to get an update on the department’s work and assess McClain’s leadership, which has come under fire over the past year.

The union set up polling locations at agency offices throughout the state. Of the 2,710 members of the DCF chapter of Local 509 of the Service Employees International Union, 1,966, or roughly 73 percent, took part in the vote, Ortega-Bagni said.

The tally showed that 1,713, or 87 percent, voted “no’’ in response to the question: “Do you have confidence in the current DCF Commissioner Anthony “Angelo’’ McClain?’’ There were 177, or 9 percent, who voted “yes;’’ 76 votes, or 4 percent, were not counted because, among other reasons, they failed to answer the question directly.

Ortega-Bagni said in the history of her union, established in 1980 to represent the agency’s staff, leaders have never held a “no confidence’’ vote on a commissioner. She said the union was on the brink of holding a similar vote on the leadership of former commissioner Linda Carlisle, but she resigned in January 1999 before the vote took place.

Though roughly one out of every four union members did not vote, union leaders were mostly pleased with the turnout.

Brett Cabral, an investigator out of the agency’s Cambridge office and a union representative, said his local office had about 90 percent participation in the vote – the nonvoters were largely those on vacation or on leave. He said many staffers have deep reservations about how McClain wants to change the way cases are investigated.

“People have no faith in him and want him to go,’’ he said.

As many union members were voting Friday, Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees McClain’s agency, issued a mass e-mail to staffers in the department, acknowledging the upcoming “confidence/no confidence’’ vote on McClain.

She commended McClain, as well as social workers and staff, for showing measurable improvements in some key areas to bolster child-welfare practices in the state.

In a phone interview yesterday, Bigby said she found it “unbelievable’’ that the union rank-and-file would vote so overwhelming against McClain. “His actions have resulted in improvements we can point to,’’ she said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at