Governor Deval Patrick said Friday that more senior officials at the state Department of Children and Families may be disciplined in the case of a missing 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who was allegedly beaten by his mother’s boyfriend and is now feared dead.
The boy, Jeremiah Oliver, was last seen alive by a relative Sept. 14, but his disappearance only came to the attention of DCF officials Dec. 2, when his 7-year-old sister told staff at her school that she was being abused by the boyfriend.
A DCF social worker has been fired for failing to make required monthly visits to the boy’s home, and a department supervisor has been fired for failing to enforce the policy.
On Friday, Patrick hinted that others may be at fault in the case.
“I’ve asked the commissioner [of DCF] to look into the question of whether responsibility goes beyond those two, and I have some reason to believe that it does,” he said on his monthly radio show on WGBH-FM. He did not elaborate, and his aides declined to discuss the matter further.
On Thursday, DCF officials said an area program manager who was overseeing the department supervisor has been reassigned, while the agency investigates what went wrong in Jeremiah’s case.
“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,” a DCF spokesman, Alec Loftus, said in a statement.
State officials, who have acknowledged multiple failings in the way Jeremiah’s case was handled, disclosed a new one Friday.
The DCF supervisor reported in Jeremiah’s case file in September that the family’s apartment was clean, without hazards, and adequately furnished, officials said. But no one from DCF had been inside the apartment since May 20, when the social worker made her last home visit.
“That was not true, because no one had actually gone to see that,” Patrick said. “Being busy doesn’t explain that kind of thing away.”
The mother’s boyfriend — Alberto L. Sierra Jr., 22 — has been charged with two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault and battery on a child causing bodily injury.
Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, has been charged with being an accessory after the fact to the attacks and with two counts of reckless endangerment of a child.
The union that represents the fired social worker has seized on the case to argue that another tragedy is waiting to happen because DCF faces a “real, systemic caseload crisis.”
The fired social worker had filed six grievances since May, complaining that she was handling as many as 20 cases at a time, even though DCF has agreed not to give workers more than 15 cases.
The union, SEIU Local 509, said the Leominster office, where Jeremiah’s case was handled, is consistently overloaded with cases.
Patrick called heavy caseloads a serious concern, but said the issue is no excuse for the social worker’s failure to visit Jeremiah’s home.
The governor said that, given the history of abuse in the family, which had been under DCF supervision since September 2011, the worker should have told a manager if her caseload was preventing her from making home visits.
“I’m not talking about a grievance,” Patrick said. “I’m talking about saying to somebody, ‘We’ve got a problem here, and I can’t get to it.’ That didn’t happen.”
The case has spawned several investigations, including one by the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent state agency that monitors DCF. Patrick asked the agency to conduct a review, and late Friday the child advocate released a statement saying the office “will conduct a careful and thorough review.”
Also Friday, Jose Oliver — the biological father of the three children, who lives in New Britain, Conn. — pleaded with Sierra and Elsa Oliver to help authorities find Jeremiah.
“I feel hopeless,” he said at his brother’s home in Worcester, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported. “I feel I should have been there to protect him, but [Elsa Oliver] did not allow me to be there.”
Last year, Elsa Oliver sought a restraining order against him, according to court records. A divorce proceeding was begun this year but not followed through by either party.
At a vigil for the boy held Friday night in Worcester, Jose Oliver wore a shirt with a picture of his son on the front and the word “Daddy” on the back, according to the Telegram & Gazette. He urged his wife to cooperate with the investigation, and said that with permission of the judge, he would speak to her.
“I believe she will talk to me,” he said. “If you’re not going to do it for me, do it for” our children.
Jose Oliver said it has been two years since he has seen Jeremiah, but he has sweet memories of his son.
“He is a little wildcat,” he said, according to the Worcester paper. “He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s like a little teddy bear. What I miss most about him is his smile.”