A paperwork bottleneck at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is causing a significant delay in getting the necessary waivers to bring new foster homes online, according to several workers at the outside agencies that arrange for intensive foster care.

They say that’s in part because the central office at DCF was hit hard by early retirement packages offered by the state. Nearly 100 managers, administrators and other central office staff jumped at the opportunity to leave the agency. And people from those intensive foster care agencies, who didn’t feel comfortable speaking on tape, describe a gaping hole in leadership left by those retirements.

Despite this, the agency workers say they are successfully recruiting more families who are willing and able to accept kids who need extra attention.

At the same time, Gail Garinger, the state’s child advocate, says DCF procedures, including things like fingerprinting and background checks, have gotten tougher for new foster homes.

"I think it’s a combination of having fewer people to do it, with a bit more stringent process at the same time," she said. And you put that combination together, and I have heard that it is creating some delays, and longer delays than had been occurring previously for approval of homes."

The recent death of foster child Avalena Conway-Coxon in Auburn has put a spotlight on the state’s foster care system. But people focused on the welfare of children in the state say the real problem isn’t that foster homes are unsafe — it’s that there’s not enough of them.

At a press conference last week following the death of , Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders said her agency has struggled with a spike in child welfare cases.

“Since December of 2013, there’s been a 30 percent increase in the ongoing cases at the Department of Children and Families," Sudders said. "That’s a huge increase.”

Many of those cases followed the 2014 death of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old who was under DCF supervision. Garinger says high-profile cases like Oliver’s pushed the state to change how it responds to child welfare.

"I think that these kinds of tragic cases inevitably cause people to become more cautious," Garinger said. "And cautious means removing more kids from homes and judges placing more kids in DCF custody."

That’s exactly what’s happened. In the fiscal year ending in June, the Department of Children and Families filed nearly 3,400 petitions to remove children from their homes due to neglect or abuse. That’s a 27 percent jump from two years ago. But there hasn’t been a sufficient increase in the number of foster homes available to those children.

"I think the need is probably greater than ever," Garinger said.

So where are all these new kids in the system going?

The answer is complicated. There are multiple levels of state care, including foster homes contracted by DCF, then more intensive foster care, which private providers are contracted to run, and then group, or congregate care placements.

"Anecdotally, I’ve heard that they’ve perhaps needed to bump certain children up a level," Garinger said.

What Garinger means is that kids in departmental foster care might be moved to intensive foster care, while some of the kids there might be moved to group homes. Previously, the state had moved away from putting kids in group settings instead of homes. But as of last week there were more than 16 hundred kids living in congregate care settings. That’s 23 percent more than in June of 2013.

But the state had previously moved away from placing kids in group settings. Mary Collins, an associate dean at Boston University’s School of Social Work, says that’s because research has shown a foster home placement is almost always better than group care.

“Primarily because it provides, being a home-like setting, all the normal developmental experiences that are needed for healthy life going forward, particularly as you get to adulthood,” Collins said.

But in order to place children in foster homes, DCF has to recruit more families who are willing to welcome those kids. DCF didn’t make anyone available for this story but officials say there’s currently one staff member in their central office whose full time job is recruiting more foster and pre-adoptive homes. The department plans to add two more staffers in that role in early September.

The recent death of Conway-Coxon will likely lead DCF staff to be even more cautious in their decision making, slowing the process even further.

Garinger says there are a lot of great foster parents caring for kids in Massachusetts.

"But I think that we as a state could be doing much, much more to recruit, to let people know about the need, and to explain the process, to expedite the process for approval and to provide many more supports than we currently do to our foster parents," she said.