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Coakley proposes changes to social services agency

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor, wants  a separate Child Protection Division within the state’s social services agency.

AP File

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor, wants a separate Child Protection Division within the state’s social services agency.

Attorney General Martha Coakley on Tuesday released a plan to create a separate Child Protection Division within the state Department of Children and Families, which has been under fire since acknowledging last month that it lost track of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy now feared dead.

With her plan, Coakley becomes the first candidate for governor to propose changes to the state’s social services agency, which fired a social worker for failing to conduct monthly visits to the boy’s home and two managers for failing to enforce that policy.

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The 5-year-old, Jeremiah Oliver, was last seen by a relative on Sept. 14 and police are treating his disappearance as a potential homicide. His mother’s boyfriend, Albert L. Sierra, 22, has been charged with brutally beating Jeremiah, and his mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, has been charged with doing nothing to stop the abuse.

In a statement released by her campaign, Coakley said that the creation of a dedicated Child Protection Division within DCF would eliminate the “inherent conflict” between the department’s dual missions to protect children from abuse and to strengthen families.

Coakley said those twin goals often create “enormous tension” for workers, supervisors and managers, who must balance concerns about the safety of a child against their duty to keep families together. As a result, Coakley said, the department is more likely to keep a child in an abusive or neglectful environment.

“Right now, a child who is the victim of abuse or neglect may not have someone involved in his or her case who looks out only for the child’s safety,” Coakley said. “During my career, I have seen, day in and day out, how the current structure of DCF puts children at risk and overburdens social workers; the creation of an independent Child Protection Division will go a long way towards addressing these issues.”

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