Social workers at the state Department of Children and Families apparently failed to make nearly 1 in 5 of their required monthly home visits in 2013, says a report released Thursday that highlights a lapse central to the case of a missing 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who is feared dead.
The report — by the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent agency that investigated the department’s mishandling of the case of Jeremiah Oliver — suggested that the failure to regularly check on families may be widespread, going beyond a few rogue workers who failed for seven months to ensure that visits were made to Jeremiah and his family.
“I plan to discuss the home visit reports and the compliance rate with the commissioner,” said Gail Garinger, a former juvenile court judge who heads the Office of the Child Advocate.
The report also pointed out that the central office of the department, where Commissioner Olga I. Roche and her top deputies work, produces semimonthly reports documenting missed visits and the date of the last visit.
In Jeremiah’s case, the social worker who failed to visit his home had documented those skipped visits. That suggests Roche had access to information showing the boy had not been visited for months before law enforcement authorities realized he had disappeared.
At a hearing Thursday held by two legislative committees, lawmakers vented their outrage at the handling of the case.
“Your department lost track of a kid,” state Representative David P. Linsky, chairman of the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee, told Roche. “That’s inexcusable. That’s absolutely inexcusable.”
After being grilled for nearly four hours at the hearing Thursday, Roche refused to respond when a Globe reporter asked whether she routinely examines the monthly reports on missed home visits. As she left the building, she also declined to speak when asked if she would commit to reviewing missed monthly visitation reports in the future.
In an e-mail sent after the hearing, Roche’s spokeswoman, Cayenne Isaksen, said: “The commissioner receives and tracks home visit numbers and trends and regularly meets with field management to review all aspects of field operations, practices, and statistics.”
Isaksen said these reports are designed for supervisors and managers, and it is their responsibility to flag issues to higher levels of management if problems become severe.
Isaksen also said the Child Advocate’s finding that, on average, only 82.5 percent of monthly home visits are completed “requires some context and is not reflective of all the times and places children are seen by child-welfare partners.”
She said social workers have up to 30 days to log home visits into a computer system, creating a delay in timely reporting of the visits. In addition, there are legitimate reasons why children may not be seen by a social worker in a given month, Isaksen said. For example, a youngster might have been at school or been visited in a department office, which would not be logged as a home visit.
Garinger said she plans to initiate discussions with Roche about how to ensure that after a prolonged period of missed home visits, Roche and other top agency officials are alerted.
Garinger said she plans to talk with the commissioner to better understand the reasons behind the percentage of missed visits. She also wants to ensure that prolonged periods of missed visits set off alarms for Roche and her top staff.
Garinger’s report also found that the agency failed to collect information about the Oliver family’s previous involvement with a child-welfare agency in another state, presumably Connecticut, where the family lived before moving to Massachusetts. In addition, the report found that the social worker who failed to visit Jeremiah had been cited previously in a separate case for failing to adequately intervene to protect a 2-year-old from being abused by the child’s mother’s boyfriend.
At Thursday’s hearing, Roche repeatedly emphasized to Linsky and other lawmakers that the department fired the social worker who failed to visit Jeremiah and the two supervisors who did not ensure that those visits were made. She said the failings in the case represented “a gross disregard of policies and procedures,” but also a “unique circumstance.”
Asked by Linsky if she could assure the public that all 36,000 children under the department’s supervision are alive and healthy, Roche said, “Yes.”
Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, and her boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr., 22, face charges of abusing the boy, but neither has been charged with killing him. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Despite searches by police and volunteers in Fitchburg, there has been no sign of Jeremiah’s whereabouts. Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. has said he fears the boy may have been killed.
As the department’s lapses have come under scrutiny, its budget has become a focal point. In the five years prior to Jeremiah’s disappearance, the department sustained deep cuts. This week, Governor Deval Patrick proposed restoring some of that funding, but even his proposal would leave the agency with less than it had in 2008, child advocates said.
“We have a choice: to continue to ignore the needs of our most vulnerable kids until we suffer the shock of another missing or murdered child or to begin investing now in a system that will ensure their safety,” said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, a nonprofit representing 75 public and private child welfare groups.
Lawmakers say the reductions were the inevitable and unfortunate result of the recession, which decimated state budgets across the country and took more than $2 billion out of Massachusetts revenues.
“Everybody raised alarms, but everybody understood that when you lose billions of dollars in revenue, there’s going to be cuts,” said former senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, who was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee from 2007 to 2010. “Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to keep state government running as it was previously because we don’t have the money to do it.”
The reductions led to heavy caseloads at the department, where workers on average handle 18 cases, instead of the 15 recommended by child welfare advocates. Patrick’s budget would reduce those ratios to 15 per worker on average.
Linsky said lawmakers are inclined to support that funding when they write their own budgets in the coming months.
“We’re going to give you whatever money you need, I’m sure,” Linsky told Roche. “The speaker is going to assure that this happens.”
House leaders, however, have not released any formal budget plans.