The father of missing Fitchburg 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver insisted in an interview Sunday that he is ready to parent his two other children, even as he acknowledged a checkered personal history that includes drug use and run-ins with the law.
“Don’t judge me on my past. People do change,” Jose Oliver said in the phone interview. “I know I can be a father to my kids and take care of them.”
Jeremiah Oliver has not been seen since September. Authorities were alerted to his disappearance Dec. 2, when his 7-year-old sister told counselors at Reingold Elementary School that she was being abused by her mother’s boyfriend and had not seen Jeremiah in some time.
Jose Oliver will appear in Fitchburg Juvenile Court on Jan. 10 to seek custody of Jeremiah’s sister and 9-year-old brother, who were placed in a foster home by the state.
Authorities have searched intensively for Jeremiah and are treating the case as a potential homicide.
Prosecutors allege that Jeremiah’s two siblings were savagely beaten by Alberto Sierra Jr., 23, and that their mother, 28-year-old Elsa Oliver, was complicit in the abuse. Elsa Oliver’s lawyer told the Globe Saturday she is mentally ill and unable to process her son’s disappearance, and prosecutors have acknowledged that she was a victim of domestic abuse by Sierra even as they charge her as his accomplice.
Sierra is a suspect in Jeremiah’s disappearance and is being held without bail.
Jose Oliver, who lives in New Britain, Conn., said Sunday that Elsa Oliver left him, took their three children, and filed a restraining order against him because he was using drugs. That restraining order prevented him from seeing their children for two years, he said. He said he tried to contact her repeatedly, but she did not respond.
Oliver said he got clean the day his wife left. He disputed a 2012 affidavit in which she alleged physical abuse.
“I never put my hands on my wife,” he said. “I’ll take a lie detector test on that.”
The state Department of Children and Families permitted Oliver to visit the children this week for about two hours, his first time seeing them in two years, he said. “I just told them, ‘I never stopped looking for you. You know I love you both. I don’t want you to think I abandoned you, because I didn’t,’ ” Oliver said.
Oliver acknowledged his criminal history of the 1990s, including an arrest for possession of heroin that resulted in him being put on probation. He said he was a passenger in a car that was pulled over by police, and that the drugs belonged to the driver.
He said he did not recall a charge of assault and battery reported by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, but acknowledged using marijuana, which he does not consider a drug. Oliver denied being in a gang, saying “I don’t believe in that. I’m not a violent person. . . . I’m a church person.”
Oliver said he is living on $600 per month in disability benefits, granted because he has depression and bipolar disorder. But he said he is searching for a suitable apartment and would be able to care for the children with the help of relatives and support programs.
“Everybody makes mistakes, man. There’s nobody perfect in this world,” he said. “The past is the past, let’s leave it there. I’m a new person. I’m older, I’m wiser.”
Christmas was especially painful, Oliver said. He spent the holiday alone.
“How can you have Christmas when your son is missing?” he said. “I just sat in my room and cried, looking at my son’s picture, trying to figure out in my head, ‘Where are you, what did they do to you?’ ”
Meanwhile, the union representing a Department of Children and Families social worker and supervisor fired in connection with the case has said the pair should not have been fired before an investigation.
“They were brought in without warning and summarily terminated without any investigation at all,” said Jason Stephany, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 509.
A departmental grievance hearing on their firing is expected in January.
Olga I. Roche, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, told the Globe this month that the social worker did not make required monthly visits to Jeremiah’s home and that the supervisor did not enforce the policy. The state Office of the Child Advocate is now investigating the alleged lapse.
Peter MacKinnon, president of the Department of Children and Families union chapter and a departmental supervisor, said in an interview Sunday that the fired workers are “upset, stressed, and anxious. . . . The not knowing [what happened to Jeremiah] is the worst.”
He said more social workers are urgently needed in some offices to alleviate the department’s high caseloads and prevent another tragedy.
“My members are worried,” he said. “They’re asking, ‘Did I miss something, did I make the right phone call, did I do everything I needed to do?’ ”
MacKinnon declined to say whether he thought the fired workers bore any responsibility for Jeremiah’s disappearance, but said fatalities occasionally happen in Department of Children and Families-supervised families even when social workers are keeping up.
“I’ve had kids on my caseload die,” he said. “Whenever that happens, the toll it takes on you personally is indescribable. We as social workers do this work because we care and want to help.”