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Governor Patrick backs chief of welfare agency

Governor Deval Patrick defended the head of the state’s child welfare department Thursday after the agency has come under sharp criticism for neglecting a troubled Fitchburg family, but he said the commissioner must determine whether other supervisors share responsibility for the failures.

Amid public outrage over the mishandling of the case, Patrick said he did not believe that Olga I. Roche, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, should resign. But he said key questions remain on how social workers failed for several months to visit the home of missing 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, despite reports of abuse.

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“Her job right now is to get to the bottom of what happened,” Patrick told reporters on Thursday, according to a transcript provided by his office. “I’m not satisfied that we have done that yet. There are still some questions that I have, and more to the point that she has, about whether there are any patterns and whether the responsibility goes higher.”

DCF has already fired the social worker who had not made mandatory monthly visits to the family’s home, along with her supervisor.

On Thursday, officials reassigned an area program manager in the Leominster office, who had overseen the supervisor, for the duration of the investigation.

“Any determination as to the future of this or any other employee will be made after the conclusion of the full and transparent investigation ordered by the governor,” DCF said.

Also Thursday, the state Senate’s four Republican members said they will be releasing a letter Friday calling for an independent investigation into the DCF’s failures and the boy’s disappearance.

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“We want to know if there are possibly other children under DCF supervision who may be in a similar situation,” said Senator Donald Humason, a Westfield Republican. “It’s important to know whether this is a systemic problem or an isolated incident.”

Jason Stephany, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 509, said: “If the allegations put forward by Commissioner Roche are proven true by a formal investigation, then the individuals involved, including department managers, must be held accountable. Those who played a role in this tragedy must accept responsibility.

“The Department of Children & Families cannot afford to let any single case paper over the real, systemic caseload crisis that overshadows the critical work DCF social workers undertake each day. The time for promises is over.”

Stephany said that caseloads for social workers were at “crisis levels” and that Roche had done little to reduce them.

Since May, the fired social worker had filed six grievances with her managers complaining about her elevated caseload, according to an official familiar with the details of the case who was not authorized to speak publicly.

In some months, she carried more than 20 cases, the official said. By agreement, caseloads are not supposed to exceed 15.

The fired social worker was based in a Leominster office that consistently has among the state’s highest caseloads, the official said. Nearly half the caseworkers in that office filed grievances over excessive caseloads in June, the union said. Almost two-thirds, 49 of 75, filed grievances in October.

Also, over the past year the number of social workers handling 20 cases or more has nearly quadrupled, from eight in October 2012 to 30 this October, the union said.

But Patrick rejected the notion that understaffing and high caseloads were to blame.

“There is no set of circumstances that could reasonably explain why someone who can’t get around to making the kinds of home visits, the eyes-on visits that were required,” he said. “Look, I understand and have heard for some time the concerns from the union about the caseload at DCF. I get that. But that can’t be solved simply, and that is a separate issue from what happened with this poor family.”

Jeremiah Oliver has been missing since September and is feared dead, and the agency has acknowledged a “serious failure” in monitoring the family.

The fired social worker last saw Jeremiah in May after his older brother complained to school staff that his mother was beating him. In November, the social worker recommended that the agency end its supervision of the family, saying they were doing well, despite a history of drug abuse and violence.

Agency officials have since learned that the social worker failed to conduct regular checks on eight households in her caseload. DCF is charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect.

Police began investigating this month when the school where Jeremiah’s sister attended noticed she was “unkempt and looked in distress,” Roche said. The 7-year-old said her mother’s boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr., had beaten her brothers and her mother, Elsa Oliver. She said one of her brothers’ pinky fingers “looked like it was cut off” and said her mother was scared he was going to die.

The girl said she had been beaten by Sierra shortly after he moved into the home in May.

This week, Sierra, 22, and Oliver, 28, were charged in the case. Sierra was charged with two counts of assaulting a child, and Oliver was charged with reckless endangerment.

Authorities said Oliver took no steps to care for her children and tried to conceal the abuse to help Sierra avoid arrest.

Jeremiah’s family, who describe the missing boy as a lovable, quiet child, said that they were outraged social workers had gone months without checking on the family and that they were considering legal action.

Patricia Wen and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com; Michael Levenson at michael.levenson
@globe.com
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