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24 legislators urge Patrick to oust Olga Roche

A group of state representatives is calling on Governor Deval Patrick to ask for the immediate resignation of the commissioner of the embattled Department of Children and Families.

In an open letter released Thursday night, the 16 Republican and eight Democratic lawmakers said Patrick should ask for Olga I. Roche’s resignation because her agency has not worked to fix problems.

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“The department has repeatedly failed to protect children under their custody,” the letter read in part. “The welfare of children under DCF guardianship is seriously at risk with the aforementioned shortcomings of the department’s leadership.”

In response, Brendan Ryan, Patrick’s chief of staff, referred to comments the governor made earlier this week when GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker called on Roche to resign.

“At any given time, you can pick out stories of tragedy and try to run somebody out of office on account of it,” Patrick told the Globe on Monday. “What I know is, she, working with the team, under those very difficult circumstances, is doing her very best.”

DCF has been under intense scrutiny since early December, when the state agency acknowledged it had failed to properly keep tabs on 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg. Jeremiah has been missing since September and is feared dead. Several DCF workers were fired after the revelations.

In addition, DCF came under further scrutiny after Janmarcos Pena, 9, was shot and killed, allegedly by his brother, in Mattapan on Feb. 7. DCF workers had repeatedly visited the family.

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Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCF, said Roche has been “working around the clock” since taking her post in October to improve the agency.

“There’s broad support for the commissioner,” Loftus said.

Loftus acknowledged that “there are areas where people failed,” but said the criticisms lobbed by lawmakers in their letter were unfair.

The letter to Patrick, co-written by Republican Representatives Ryan Fattman of Webster and Leah Cole of Peabody, was issued after the death of a 23-month-old Yarmouth boy who was born addicted to opiates.

“We had had these plans in the works for quite some time. . . . This was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Horace Mello, an aide to Cole.

Supporters of Roche, including Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, argue that a change in leadership would do nothing to move DCF forward.

“Changing commissioners at this point would not bring the Commonwealth any closer to achieving DCF’s primary responsibility of protecting children,” Bradley wrote in a statement Thursday.

One of the Democrats to sign the letter, Jonathan Zlotnik of Gardner, said problems at the agency started at the top.

“It seems now that the organization has had a problem with management,” he said in an interview. “We need to bring in a fresh pair of eyes.”

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@globe.com.

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