Between the Lines: Customarily Defiant

Deval Patrick’s public statements about the troubled state Department of Children and Families on balance strike me as not only defensive, but defiant.

When he said last week, for example, that the agency’s failures stem from a lack of computer technology and not enough caseworkers, it sounded to me like he was saying that the deaths of infants ostensibly under the protection of child services isn’t his fault or the fault of his administration. It was a slightly more nuanced continuation of what we’ve been hearing all along from Patrick: the problems at DCF can’t be solved by blaming a single culprit.

That’s essentially what the governor was saying in mid-February, when he defended then-embattled, now former DCF Commissioner Olga Roche.

“Well I hear it and I understand it,” Patrick said about the pressure coming from state lawmakers to oust Roche. “It’s kind of a customary thing in politics that when someone or something goes wrong, people call for someone’s head on a platter. I mean [Roche] is somebody who has 20 or 30 years of experience in child welfare, her experience and understanding and preparation is quite a bit deeper than the folks who have written me saying that she should step down.”

What I heard then, what I was still hearing last week, is a smart, articulate lawyer blaming a gut-wrenching example of our rotten political and public administration culture on the greater forces of our society—like poverty and the complexities of trying to protect poor people in a political environment that doesn’t make poor people a priority.

And of course, he’s absolutely right.

But being correct in his analysis and articulate in his explanation for the tragic results of systemic failure in DCF isn’t enough, because it fails to contemplate why we look to governors and their commissioners in the first place. Rolling his eyes at the predictable but not unreasonable call for Roche’s removal at DCF, trying to steer attention away from specific failings at DCF and into a fuzzier discussion of what the agency needs going forward, Patrick seems oblivious to his responsibility to lead and unfamiliar with the inherent requirement that leaders take responsibility.

While the public and political reaction to the DCF scandal has been predictable (as Patrick repeatedly reminds us), Patrick’s actions and comments have been equally predictable. In his public handling of the DCF controversies, we see the governor once again trying to rise above the pettiness of politics, not altogether wrong in his criticism of political gestures—like firing embattled commissioners—as ultimately symbolic rather than substantive. But in trying to fly at 10,000 feet, Patrick appears to hold the messy details on the ground—the failed management practices and oversight at DCF, in this case—at arm’s length, treating the deaths and the specific failures that led to those deaths as abstractions.

In fairness, I don’t think for a moment that Deval Patrick lacks compassion. Rather, like too many public figures who rise to the top offices, he often displays too much compassion for the folks who work in public agencies and not enough for the people who those agencies serve. In his defiance of public outrage and the politicians who sought to appease or exploit that outrage, Patrick has defended a culture that, in fact, he promised to challenge and reform.•

Author: Tom Vannah

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