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Deval Patrick orders a review of state family agency

Under mounting pressure from state lawmakers, the Patrick administration said Wednesday that the Child Welfare League of America will conduct a full review of the state Department of Children and Families, which has been under intense scrutiny for failing to monitor a missing 5-year-old Fitchburg boy and for other instances of possible mismanagement.

The administration said the review, which will take place over the next several months, will ensure that the department has the best policies and procedures in place to strengthen families and protect children under its care.

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“DCF is responsible for protecting the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children from abuse and neglect, and this is not a responsibility that we take lightly,” said John Polanowicz, the state’s health and human services secretary. “The department has strong policies in place, and the [Child Welfare League’s] independent review will ensure those policies are the right ones and provide recommendations to further strengthen our child welfare practices.”

The review will examine DCF’s policies and practices and scrutinize its supervision and management, home visits, processing of reports of abuse and neglect, and how the department deals with families with young children, among other areas, officials said. The league will then report on areas that need improvement and recommend fixes.

The league, which was founded in 1920, is a nonprofit organization whose members include nearly 800 public and private agencies that work with children across the country. It conducts research, sponsors conferences and professional development seminars, and consults with social services agencies nationwide.

“We know that violence, substance abuse, and trauma can have a devastating effect on all children and especially young children,” Christine James-Brown, president and chief executive officer of the league, said in a statement. “We also know that there are a range of specific administrative and front-line practices that are necessary to help keep children safe.”

The review comes a month after DCF acknowledged that one of its social workers failed to make monthly visits to the Fitchburg home of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old boy who has not been seen since Sept. 14 and is feared dead. DCF fired the social worker for not making those visits and two managers for failing to properly oversee her.

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

Administration officials have said that they believe Jeremiah’s case is an isolated instance of mismanagement.

But this week, the superintendent of schools in Northbridge went public with concerns that DCF badly mismanaged several cases in her community. The superintendent, Nancy R. Spitulnik, said school staff in the town, 40 miles west of Boston, had to send DCF 13 reports alleging that a second-grader was being sexually abused before the agency removed the student from the home. She said the department regularly closed serious cases because parents refused to cooperate, leaving students “in immediate danger.”

The fresh allegations of misconduct sparked outrage among state lawmakers who said they suggest that DCF is facing systemic problems and who called on the Patrick administration to take a deeper look at the agency.

The Senate’s four Republican members have repeatedly called for an independent investigation of DCF by the state auditor, the state inspector general, or a combination of the two. This week, Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, also called for an investigation, and said DCF managers in Northbridge should be fired if Spitulnik’s allegations are substantiated.

On Wednesday, Senator Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, called on the Patrick administration to disclose complete data on staffing at key human services agencies, including DCF.

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson
@globe
.com.
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