LOWELL — Child welfare workers are struggling with what they say is a caseload crisis caused by longstanding staffing shortages and new policies implemented after the disappearance of a Fitchburg boy who was under state supervision, union officials said Tuesday.
The state Department of Children and Families was handling 35,066 cases as of March 1, according to the Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents child welfare workers. That’s a 9 percent increase since December, when officials learned that Jeremiah Oliver was missing.
Jeremiah’s body was found Friday off Interstate 190 in Sterling, authorities said. He was 4 years old when he was last seen in September. No one has been charged in his death.
The preschooler is alleged to have been the victim of violence involving his mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., 23, both of whom have refused to say anything about his whereabouts since their arrests in December on assault and child endangerment charges. They have pleaded not guilty.
On Tuesday, a judge allowed requests from Elsa Oliver’s lawyer to let an independent pathologist examine the boy’s body before it is released to his family for a funeral, said her attorney, James Gavin Reardon Jr.
“There has been no announced cause of death nor have I been given any information about my client’s alleged involvement in the death,” Reardon said.
Sierra’s lawyer didn’t return a call seeking comment.
The Oliver case exposed systemic problems at the state child protection agency, including heavy caseloads and poor internal communication.
“We need something done today. We need more workers. We need lower caseloads,” said Kelly Ballum, a caseworker in Lowell, where about three dozen caseworkers and DCF investigators held an informational picket Tuesday. She said she’s handling 22½ cases and must visit with 30 children this month.
Union officials singled out a directive requiring the agency to conduct a full investigation of any claims of abuse involving children age 5 and under in families with young parents, or parents with a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, or unresolved childhood trauma.
“It’s just impossible for the agency and for the investigators and ongoing workers to handle the volume of cases that are coming in,” said Anthony Labo, a child welfare investigator in Lowell and a union official.
The contract for investigators says they should have no more than 12 cases per month, but Labo said some are now juggling upward of 30 a month.
Peter MacKinnon, president of the union that represents child welfare workers, said he supports the reasons behind the new directives, including an increase in opiate abuse and research into the causes of death and injuries for children age 5 and under.
But, he said, the agency should have put staff in place to carry out the policy change.
“They put in writing that we don’t have the staff to do this, but we’re going to do this anyway,” MacKinnon said. “To do it without any thought or any planning and without the staff to do it caused the spike and actually made kids less safe.”
Governor Deval Patrick said lawmakers are working on providing more money to hire additional staff.
“They have had staffing needs for some time, we’ve known this for more than a year, we’ve been working on it for more than a year,” Patrick said, according to a transcript of his comments provided to the Globe.
The agency got an additional $2.8 million in funding this year, and Patrick’s budget plan for next year includes an additional $9.2 million to pay for 175 new social workers and staff and to improve technology, according to a statement from Cayenne Isaksen, a DCF spokeswoman.
More than 150 social workers and staff have been hired in the last four months, she said.
The union said the extra money being sought would not meet demand.
Jeremiah Oliver’s disappearance only became known to police when his 7-year-old sister told school staff that she and her 9-year-old brother had been physically abused at home and that she had not seen Jeremiah in a long time.
The boy’s father, Jose Oliver, who lives in New Britain, Conn., said he hopes to hold a funeral in Fitchburg and burial in Worcester.
“I hope I get answers. Why? Just why? That’s what I want to know — just why and what happened,” he said.