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DCF worker fired in case of missing Fitchburg boy recently promoted

Less than a month before the Patrick administration fired a social worker for grossly mishandling the case of a five-year-old Fitchburg boy who is now feared dead, the state Department of Children and Families promoted her, citing her commendable job performance.

The social worker was promoted on Nov. 27 and received a 5 percent bump in pay this month, according to DCF officials. Just over two weeks later, on Dec. 16, DCF fired the social worker and blamed her for failing to properly monitor Jeremiah Oliver, a five-year-old boy who has not been seen alive September and is feared dead.

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DCF officials said the social worker failed to make monthly visits to Jeremiah’s home, as required by department policy, and failed to properly track down multiple warning signs that the boy was being abused and neglected by his mother and her boyfriend. The mother, Elise Oliver, and the boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, were charged this month in connection with the case.

Agency officials said the social worker was promoted as part of “statewide, merit-based” promotion given to 239 social workers in the agency. The social worker “met the criteria for this promotion, as confirmed by her manager, who has now been terminated,” for her own failures in the handling of Jeremiah’s case, said Cayenne Isaksen, a DCF spokeswoman.

DCF acknowledged the promotion on Monday after announcing the firing a third person in connection with the disappearance of Jeremiah, who has been missing since September.

Olga I. Roche, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, this afternoon said she has fired the area program manager as part of the department's inquiry into its involvement with Jeremiah, his two siblings and their mother in Fitchburg.

Roche has already fired the social worker and the social worker’s supervisor, dismissals that are being criticized by their union as hastily taken actions that were not based on a thorough investigation into the case.

Today, DCF officials said the area program manager knew that the social worker was failing to visit Jeremiah Oliver as she was required to do, but failed to act.

“The failure and misconduct of the staff in this case contributed to the tragedy,’’ Roche said this afternoon. “The staff missed multiple opportunities to engage the Oliver family. The absence of home visits to assess the safety of children was a serious failure.’’

A fourth person was given a three-day suspension and reassigned.

Roche said that the DCF has completed its investigation into the agency’s failure in the Oliver case, and concluded that the primary fault lay with the social worker who repeatedly failed to conduct home visits coupled with the failure of the social worker’s direct supervisor to question why the mandatory visits were not being performed.

Roche said that when questioned about the Oliver case, both the social worker and the direct supervisor readily acknowledged their failure, but did not provide an explanation for their inaction.

“They did not offer an explanation, what they said was they did not (handle) the case properly,’’ Roche said. “They never offer any reasonable explanation.’’

Roche said the social worker was a five-year employee who had the necessary training and experience to handle the Oliver assignment properly. She said that after the Oliver case problem was discovered, DCF checked the other families the social worker was responsible for, and discovered that she missed required home visits for those clients, also.

“There was a pattern similar to this in this particular worker’s [practice] of not visiting,’’ Roche said. “And that’s why the supervisor should have known’’ there was an issue with the quality of her work.

To help prevent a similar tragedy, Roche said DCF has directed managers to verify and confirm that families under their supervision are receiving regular home visits. DCF staff has also been directed to investigate families with children under age 5 with young parents, and children of any age whose parents have a history of drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, or unresolved childhood trauma.

On Sunday, the father of the missing boy told the Globe that he is ready to parent his two other children, both of whom are currently in the care of DCF. Jose Oliver said he will be in Fitchburg Juvenile Court on Jan. 10 to seek custody of Jeremiah’s 7-year-old sister and 9-year-old brother.

Authorities were alerted to the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver on Dec. 2 when his sister told counselors at Reingold Elementary School she and her two brothers were being abused in their home and that she had not seen her younger brother recently.

Despite searches by police and concerned citizens in Fitchburg, no sign of the missing boy has been found and Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. has said he fears the boy may have been killed.

The boy’s mother, Elsa Oliver, 38, and her boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr., are both facing abuse charges for violent acts against Jeremiah Oliver, but neither has been charged with murdering the boy. Both are currently being held without bail, and Oliver’s attorney told the Globe Saturday that she is mentally ill and unable to process her son’s disappearance.

Oliver is also being held without bail on a contempt charge in juvenile court, where she has been ordered to produce her son.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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