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Family agency faulted again for mismanagement

A schools chief assails handling of students’ cases

The state Department of Children and Families, which has acknowledged seriously mishandling the case of a missing 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, is facing fresh allegations of mismanagement from a superintendent of schools who says the agency failed to respond promptly to other cases of neglect and abuse elsewhere in the state.

School staff in Northbridge had to send DCF 13 reports alleging that a second-grader was being sexually abused before the agency removed the student from the home, according to a letter from Nancy R. Spitulnik, superintendent of schools in Northbridge, that became public this week.

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Spitulnik said school principals in Northbridge, a community 40 miles west of Boston, have reported that DCF regularly closed serious cases because the parents refused to cooperate, leaving the students “in immediate danger.” In one case, DCF refused to accept a report from school staff who suspected that a first-grader was being neglected after the student missed more than 75 days of school, Spitulnik wrote. She said DCF also failed to follow up with a homeless student who was living on his own.

The superintendent said she went public, in a letter to DCF officials that was released by state lawmakers this week, because she said that it was “extremely concerning” to learn in news reports about the missing Fitchburg boy that the Northbridge office has the highest caseloads in the state, according to the union that represents social workers.

“If it has been known that the caseloads in this office are too high, I’m appalled that no actions have been taken to correct this situation in order to ensure the safety and well-
being of our students before a similar tragedy occurs here,” Spitulnik wrote in her Dec. 20 letter to Olga I. Roche, the DCF commissioner. Spitulnik ‘s letter did not specify a timeframe for the alleged misconduct.

DCF has been under intense scrutiny since acknowledging last month that it failed to monitor 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg, who has not been seen since Sept. 14. The agency fired a social worker from the Leominster office for failing to make monthly visits to Jeremiah’s home, and two supervisors for failing to enforce that policy. The DCF’s Northbridge office shares some regional managers with the Leominster office.

The latest allegations sparked outrage from several influential figures in the Legislature, who suggested that DCF is suffering from systemic problems beyond the three employees who were fired for mishandling Jeremiah’s case.

Senate President Therese Murray said in a letter to Roche that DCF must conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations of mismanagement in the agency’s Northbridge office.

“If these disturbing allegations are in fact true, I hope for the swift and immediate removal and overhaul of management” in that office, Murray wrote.

Senator Richard T. Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat, said the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee plans to launch a new investigation of DCF, adding to a growing list of investigations by House committees and by the Office of the Child Advocate, which monitors the agency.

“I have a hard time believing this might be an isolated situation, not only within the area, but there might be other cases across the state,” Moore said.

Governor Deval Patrick said Roche met with Spitulnik and several school principals in Northbridge Tuesday. He stopped short of saying his administration would launch its own formal investigation.

“There are going to be lots of issues raised, and there have been lots of issues raised, not all of which are based on fact, and I think what the responsibility of the commissioner is and has been is to get those facts, and that’s what’s happening,” said Patrick. “I think it’s important not to jump to conclusions.”

Cayenne Isaksen, a DCF spokeswoman, said Roche “had a productive meeting with Superintendent Spitulnik and her staff.”

“The department is following up on cases raised by the superintendent,” Isaksen said in a statement. “Going forward, the department and the school district are committed to working closely to enhance collaboration and offer training opportunities for staff. The Department of Children and Families processes all [reports of abuse and neglect] received and takes each allegation on behalf of a child very seriously.”

Spitulnik said in another letter she released after her meeting with Roche that DCF officials had agreed to open more regular lines of communication with school officials. Spitulnik wrote that it was “an open, honest, and professional discussion about some of our concerns and possible solutions in the future.”

Albert L. Sierra, 22, the boyfriend of Jeremiah’s mother, has been charged with brutally beating the boy, and Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, has been charged with failing to stop the abuse.

The problems at DCF prompted Attorney General Martha Coakley to call Tuesday for creation of a separate Child Protection Division within that department. Coakley, a Democrat who is running for governor, said the division would eliminate the “inherent conflict” between the department’s dual missions to protect children from abuse and to strengthen families. That unit would be separate from the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent state agency.

“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 in a statement released by her campaign.

Charlie Baker, a Republican candidate for governor, echoed calls by Senate Republicans for an independent audit of DCF.

“We need to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the Fitchburg case and determine if other children under state care are at risk,” he said. “Internal investigations rarely, if ever, produce an accurate and credible picture quickly enough in these types of situations.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com
.

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