They lost him. And they didn’t even bother to look for him.
The case of Jeremiah Oliver, the missing Fitchburg boy, is a story of monumental, catastrophic failure. State social workers were all that stood between the 5-year-old and disaster. But instead of protecting him, they left him to suffer alone. He was just one endangered child among many, his precious little life failing to rise to the top of a pile — and not even a tall pile — of case files on a desk.
Here is a child who, along with his two siblings, had the great misfortune of being born into mayhem, to parents who were sick, lost, and cruel. No one close to these children appeared able, or willing, to protect them. Not the addicted, mentally ill, abused, and abusive mother who stood in a courtroom on Tuesday. Not the father who appears to have done nothing — not even see them – after his wife took the children away a few years ago.
And certainly not Alberto Sierra, the man accused of terrorizing Elsa Oliver and her children for months before Oliver’s daughter raised the alarm that finally delivered her from evil a couple of weeks ago. Imagine the fear this 7-year-old girl must have felt — the isolation, the horrors playing out in the place where she was supposed to feel safest. What courage it took for her to tell a school guidance counselor what was happening: That her mother’s boyfriend had been hurting all of them, for months. By then, only one of her brothers remained in the home. Jeremiah is missing, last seen by a relative in September. Police fear he has been killed.
It is sickening to think of how it came to this. The Department of Children and Families, which exists to protect kids when nobody else will, had been involved with the family since September 2011. A social worker should have been visiting the family’s home every month. There was a visit in May, after one of the children told staff at his school that Sierra had beaten him, and one in November, by which time Jeremiah was gone. The social worker didn’t bother to follow up on a report that the boy had suddenly gone to live with relatives in Florida. DCF Commissioner Olga I. Roche said Wednesday that the social worker failed to recognize or report other huge red flags in the case, like the mother’s mental illness and drug use. She did not follow up with others who dealt with the children and said they were concerned about the child’s sudden absence.
Even more stunning, Roche said the social worker and her supervisor were actually recommending that DCF close the case on this cauldron of potentially lethal dysfunction. The children were utterly on their own.
It’s one thing when abused kids fly under the radar. It’s another when everything is working as it should — educators spot warning signs, case files are opened, monitoring begins — and yet the children’s suffering continues as if they were invisible.
Roche said Wednesday that the social worker had neglected her duties with other children, too. Of the 18 cases she was handling, Roche said, the social worker had failed to make monthly visits to eight of the households. (The commissioner said the other seven families were doing fine despite the social worker going MIA.)
There is no nuance here, as there is in so many of these awful stories, nothing hard to understand except the cruel ending. This is not a case in which an overtaxed worker was trying to balance the benefits of keeping a family together against concerns for the children’s safety. Dedicated social workers make those agonizing judgments all the time, and Roche was careful to pay tribute to them. No, there is no gray here: If what Roche says is true, this social worker and her supervisor simply failed to do their job.
And because of that, a child who could have — should have — had a reason to hope is gone.Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.