NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — One morning three years ago, Jeremiah Oliver was running stark naked around his family’s apartment when there was a loud knock.
The toddler watched as his precocious 4-year-old sister opened the front door.
“Where’s your Daddy?” asked the landlord, Pedro Rosado. He had come, along with a marshal, to evict the family for skipping their $800 monthly rent again.
The girl pointed to the closed bathroom door.
Jose Oliver was back, even though his wife, Elsa, had assured Connecticut’s child-protection agency that her crack-obsessed husband was out of her life.
Emerging from the bathroom, he pleaded, “Can you give me two more weeks?”
Elsa, standing nearby, knew it was hopeless. They were broke.
Without saying a word, she lifted 20-month-old Jeremiah into her arms, grabbed some of his clothes, and left the second-floor unit, with her daughter and 6-year-old oldest son in tow, as the landlord recalled. Soon Jose would join them, hauling boxes and luggage. And then the family was off, searching for another rental where the landlord wouldn’t ask for references.
For Jeremiah, abrupt moves like this were becoming routine. His address changed on average two or three times a year — at least a dozen times overall — until he disappeared last year while living in Fitchburg, Mass. His mother, who by then had a new man in her life, refused to tell police anything about Jeremiah’s whereabouts. But last month, acting on a tip, police discovered Jeremiah at the side of a highway in Central Massachusetts. His lifeless body had been stuffed in a piece of luggage.
The boy’s name has since become synonymous with one of the worst lapses in the history of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, after it was revealed that a state social worker had skipped eight mandatory monthly visits with Jeremiah, overlapping the time the child disappeared. His case led to the firing of the social worker and two of her supervisors and helped precipitate last month’s resignation of the agency’s commissioner, Olga Roche.
The public furor over his death, however, threatens to obscure a deeper truth about Jeremiah’s life. Yes, he was a child the system literally lost, exposing the hazard at the heart of an overtaxed, undersupervised, and error-prone bureaucracy, where complaints are sometimes never fully investigated, where critical files go unread, and where one employee’s negligence can spell the difference between life and death.
But Jeremiah was also the Everychild in the state system. Like so many, his safety was compromised in some form every day, but it was long unclear whether wresting him into foster care would improve the odds for his well-being.
Social workers who dealt with him and his family regularly confronted the classic quandary: How to assess parents who display a confusing mixture of sympathetic and disturbing traits, who may love their children but far too often fail them. When do they cross the line into the unacceptably dangerous realm?
State social workers are often cast as child snatchers, but only one in five children under state watch are removed from parents deemed to pose too great a risk. That leaves four out of five of those children — some 33,000 youngsters like Jeremiah — living with parents who fall into the broad gray zone when assessing risk. They keep their children by convincing social workers that they are more caring than chaotic, more resilient than reckless, more promising than pathological — and that their children would be more traumatized by going into foster care.
Sadly for Jeremiah, even when social workers visited his family every month, they failed to pick up on signs that Elsa Oliver’s mental state was rapidly deteriorating, and that Jeremiah and his siblings were often hungry and in harm’s way, according to extensive interviews with investigators, the boy’s relatives, family friends, as well as reviews of state agency and court records.
This misjudgment was made largely because the family moved so much, and no social worker or supervisor knew them well. As the Oliver case file thickened with new addresses and piles of paperwork, the understanding of the family, ironically, became increasingly shallow.
Staff adhered to the prevailing view, contained in typed case summaries, that Elsa was the resilient parent open to help, and that the key to the safety of her children was that her no-good husband wasn’t around.
Only too late would social workers question that simplistic narrative, and by then the agency had completely lost contact with the household. This was an inexcusable lapse, DCF officials have acknowledged, and they have also admitted recognizing only belatedly the significance of earlier troubling behavior by Jeremiah’s mother.
Still, seasoned child-protection workers insist it distorts reality to read too much into this tragic failure. With so many fragile families to track, they can’t get it right every time. Even if they conscientiously make their monthly visits, a lot can happen during the 30 days that fall in between.
“DCF is never going to prevent kids from dying,” said Dennis Gauthier, a retired administrator who worked for 30 years at the agency. “We’re paying people to change the odds.”
For Jeremiah, those assigned to improve his odds ultimately failed, not just because of unthinkable negligence at the end of his short life, but because of escalating troubles that were overlooked until a girl told someone at her Fitchburg school: I haven’t seen my younger brother in a long time.
A promising case, a rocky road
Elsa Oliver had been the type of woman that social workers root for all the time: She was a disadvantaged mother willing to accept help to improve her life, and her children’s.
She was born as Elsa Garcia on May 21, 1985, the oldest of a handful of children in a financially-struggling family headed by Damaris Martinez, a single mother who was deaf. Sign language, as well as English and Spanish, became the ways Elsa and her siblings communicated with each other.
She graduated from Cranston High School East in Rhode Island, though her schooling was disrupted by a hospitalization for an acute case of anxiety and depression, among other mental health issues, according to an investigator familiar with her case.
The source of her psychological problems is unclear. Elsa, as well as her mother and siblings, declined interviews with the Globe.
Elsa met Jose Oliver around the end of high school, on a phone chat line where anonymous callers hunted for dates. “What type of guys do you like?” he recalled asking her. She said she wanted someone honest, outgoing, and funny.
Soon, the two exchanged names and agreed to meet in person, after realizing they both lived in Providence. Jose was 31 years old — 13 years her senior — and was a soon-to-be-divorced father of two. He was stocky, with big brown eyes and a romantic streak.
They took walks and saw movies, and one thing led to the next. A few months later, Elsa was pregnant and they were talking about marriage.
“She was sweet. She had a kind heart,” Jose said in an interview this spring, recalling a time she left her coat next to a homeless man.
If his background had red flags, Elsa either didn’t, or wouldn’t, see them. Jose had dropped out in ninth grade, and worked briefly in minimum-wage jobs at restaurants and hotels. He had a drug habit. While growing up in Worcester, he accumulated a long arrest record, including charges of drunken driving, marijuana possession, and theft.
His first wife, Michelle Silva, with whom he has two sons, had once accused Jose of threatening to kill her during an argument about his drug use, though she later withdrew the charges, according to court records. Silva said in an interview last month that while her ex-husband was troubled, he never struck her.
Elsa and Jose Oliver married in October 2004 in New Britain, Conn., where they had moved to be near her mother, who had taken up residence there. The young family settled into a routine built around their newborn boy.
But within months, a crisis erupted. Elsa had become, like her husband, addicted to crack, and state social workers in Connecticut took the child away, eventually placing the boy with Elsa’s mother.
Elsa, however, was committed to proving herself a good mother. She went to a drug rehabilitation program and saw therapists. She met with social workers regularly. With Jose, she began regularly attending a Pentecostal church, taking in sermons about redemption and hope.
The pastor, Ayleen Merced, said it was Elsa who contacted the Connecticut Department of Children and Families about her drug problems, which led to her son’s removal.
“She was smoking crack,” Merced said. “She snitched herself out.”
Ultimately she earned the trust of social workers, and her child was returned home. She accepted clinicians’ suggestions that her son get screened for hyperactivity and autism spectrum disorders. Around that time, Elsa also gave birth to her daughter.
Still, money was tight and neither parent had a steady job. Their income came largely from food stamps and disability benefits through the federal Supplemental Security Income program. Elsa, Jose, and their son qualified for SSI based on psychological and behavioral issues, Jose said, and their monthly payments totaled about $1,800.
Despite their strained finances, Jose remembered this as a special period in their family life, saying he was particularly fond of his daughter, who was bright and chatty and “my only girl.”
The good times, however, wouldn’t last.
‘Arguing, arguing, and arguing’
When their third child, Jeremiah, was born on Dec. 8, 2008, a neighbor in their New Britain duplex, Lucy Mercado, brought over a one-piece outfit, with a package of infant diapers. It was obvious to her that this family needed help. She said Elsa quietly thanked her, and then retreated back into her unit.
The preceding months had been tense in the Oliver household. Elsa had called police that summer after a vicious argument with her husband. She told officers that Jose was “not supposed to be using any drugs while he is on probation and his test came back positive for crack.” She said she was “tired of Jose and his games.”
According to a police report, officers “did not see any signs of violence on Elsa” and Jose responded by saying that his pregnant wife “gets upset really easy and he did not argue with her because he did not want to hurt his baby.”
Mercado said she frequently overheard the couple’s profanity-laced tirades.
“They were arguing, arguing, and arguing. Loud,” she recalled. “The kids were crying.”
Mercado said Elsa, a chain-smoker, often looked overwhelmed and unkempt, wearing baggy clothes, her long dark hair disheveled.
Months later, Elsa filed papers to divorce Jose, concluding she was better off raising her three children alone. State social workers apparently agreed, and just before Jeremiah’s first birthday, the family’s case was closed.
Connecticut DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said the agency “determined that the mother was receiving and participating in appropriate services and that the domestic violence issues were remedied due to the father no longer being in the home.”
But Elsa later took Jose back into the home. And after a succession of evictions, the couple moved around the spring of 2011 to Central Massachusetts, to be near Jose’s older brother.
A new start, an old pattern
For a while in Massachusetts, little Jeremiah seemed to thrive.
In the latter part of 2011, Elsa began bringing 2-year-old Jeremiah to a home-based day care in Worcester. At first, he cried for her to return. But soon, Jeremiah was putting together puzzles and painting pictures with a handful of other children. He gobbled up the pancakes and the rice-and-bean dishes offered to him.
“He was very friendly,” said the day-care operator, who recalled that he spoke both English and Spanish. When his mother picked him up, he raced to her with a smile.
Jeremiah had started attending day care at the urging of the Massachusetts child-protection agency. In September 2011, an anonymous caller had filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, saying there was a pervasive smell of marijuana wafting from the family’s Worcester apartment and the children did not have enough food. Social workers opened a child neglect case and, after a brief interview with the parents, realized they had to call their counterparts in Connecticut for more background on the family.
After several calls, they learned only that Connecticut had opened a child neglect case in 2005, but nothing about the depth of the family’s problems, said an investigator familiar with the case. The full case file was not sent.
The spokesman for Connecticut’s child-protection agency said the Oliver file wasn’t released because Massachusetts DCF never submitted a written request as is required.
As social workers in Worcester tried to assess the new case, Elsa became more withdrawn. Rose Valcourt, Jose’s sister-in-law who lived above the Olivers, remembers Jeremiah’s sister, then 5, sometimes coming upstairs saying, “We’re hungry.”
Valcourt would give her niece piles of food, which she took down to share with her siblings. But when Valcourt offered to help Elsa shop for groceries, she was rebuffed.
Elsa opened a Facebook account in the winter of 2012, revealing some of what was on her mind. She wrote about her difficulty breaking a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and tensions with people who “back stab’’ her, including her “ex-mom” and “ex-sister.” She expressed longing for the Pentacostal congregation in New Britain.
“I so miss being a church going Christian,’’ she wrote.
She also talked about missing her older son who had recently entered a residential program for children with behavioral issues, and feeling grateful that “my two younger kids are easy to raise.”
About a year after arriving in Worcester, while secretly starting to date other men, Elsa seemed determined to make a final break from her husband. She filed a restraining order against Jose, accusing him of threatening to harm her if they didn’t stay together. One day, as Jose recalled, he returned home and found Elsa and the children had disappeared.
Elsa left no note.
With the help of DCF, which by then had learned about Elsa’s extensive history of mental health, substance abuse, and marital problems, she moved to a couple of homeless shelters with her children. Ultimately, they ended up in a coveted three-bedroom apartment in a new $2.5 million residential center for homeless families at Fort Devens.
It would be Elsa’s and her children’s comfortable respite through the summer of 2012, a shelter that looked more like an upscale condominium building, a place that offered extensive support services for single mothers who stay free of charge while trying to stabilize their lives and save money for a new apartment.
Elsa spent some of her cash to create a new image. She posted photos on Facebook showing off her fashionable new clothes and blond-streaked hair.
“I fell in love with pink,” she wrote. “I look so damn sexy in this color as I do with any color.” In October 2012, Elsa posted that she is “living that single life,” though dating wasn’t easy with the shelter curfews.
Elsa also posted photos of her children, smiling at a picnic table and enjoying a park. Under a picture of Jeremiah wearing green miniature sunglasses, she wrote, “I love Jeremiah’s goofiness.’’
Angie Melendez, one of Elsa’s friends at the shelter, said everyone knew Jeremiah as a “mamma’s boy.” He was happiest in Elsa’s lap, and whenever he was told to leave her side, he’d often have a tantrum, screaming “No! No!”
The stay at the shelter was the most stable period of housing for Elsa since she became a mother. Still, like many women there, she grew tired of its rules, including cleanup inspections and visitor sign-in sheets. By the late fall, Elsa and her best friend at the shelter found an apartment in Fitchburg, each with the help of a $4,000 state grant for homeless mothers.
The move meant that Elsa’s thick DCF file was dropped on the desk of a new social worker because Fitchburg fell under a different administrative zone.
Just back from maternity leave after having her first child, the social worker was no longer able to work late into the night to keep up with high caseloads, several colleagues said. The typical social worker in the North Central office had to track more than 18 cases, one of the highest caseloads in the state, according to union officials who have long complained that budget cuts have created untenable workloads.
The social worker, whose identity has not been disclosed by DCF, has admitted to investigators that she never read the voluminous Oliver family file when she got the case. She read only a summary, which outlined the family’s history while portraying Elsa as cooperative and engaged with services to help her children.
The case seemed to her and her supervisors a candidate for closure, despite an abuse complaint that school staff had made just a few months earlier, accusing Elsa of whipping her oldest son with a belt. She admitted that she had struck the boy because she got “frustrated and snapped,” prompting social workers to talk to her about safe discipline practices, according to an investigator.
With roughly 1,500 new families receiving DCF services each month statewide, roughly an equal number of cases need to be closed to avoid adding to the already excessive workloads. But cases with serious ongoing issues are not supposed to be among them.
And soon, another complaint was filed against Elsa, which included some alarming observations. A mental health clinician who worked with Elsa’s oldest son reported that the mother seemed scattered and paranoid. She also noted a strong smell of marijuana on Elsa’s clothing, and wrote that Elsa didn’t want the clinician coming to her new apartment.
But after an initial screening, this complaint was not logged for further investigation, for reasons that DCF officials have declined to explain.
Elsa met her new social worker in February 2013, about four months after she moved to Fitchburg, and at their first meeting, she insisted she didn’t need DCF’s help anymore. The social worker agreed to “speak to her supervisor about closing the case,” according to an agency summary.
In the weeks ahead, Elsa’s personal life and housing situation became more chaotic. Around March, Elsa bolted from her Fitchburg apartment, telling her roommate, who had a new boyfriend, that she felt like a third wheel.
Elsa and her three children sought refuge in a two-bedroom unit in Fitchburg rented by Melendez, one of Elsa’s other friends from the shelter who also had three children. The space was tight, but Elsa and her children were allowed to sleep on a fold-out couch.
Melendez recalled that Elsa seemed preoccupied with her love life. She said Elsa spent hours talking on the phone with different men, seemingly enjoying the seductive banter.
“She was addicted to sex,” said Melendez. “She could not be with only one guy.”
Melendez said she often had to wake up and feed Elsa’s children breakfast, not just her own.
The family’s abrupt and frequent moves were taking their toll on Jeremiah.
That spring, a staff member at the Head Start preschool that Jeremiah attended reported that the boy was openly worried about “adult things,” such as where he would be living one day to the next, according to an investigator.
In April, when the DCF social worker had her second and final visit with Jeremiah, Elsa said she was looking for a new apartment, and was considering sending her children to Florida to live with her mother. She was reminded to renew her restraining order against her husband.
Then a month later, in a fateful development for Jeremiah, a new man named Alberto Sierra Jr. entered Elsa’s life.
He was then 22, five years younger than Elsa. Sierra had no stable job and a fierce violent streak. His previous girlfriend at least twice took out restraining orders against him, alleging in 2012 that he had struck her and bruised her face and body.
Sierra’s relationship with Elsa was sexually intense. One time a neighbor complained to Melendez that Elsa was having sex with Sierra in a parked car, but Elsa explained to her friend that she was just giving Sierra “a lap dance.”
In May, a Fitchburg school filed a complaint against Elsa after her oldest son allegedly told school staff that his mother had struck him “with a belt on the back, leg, and feet.” A school nurse examined the boy and found slight “pinkness” to his back, and DCF substantiated that complaint.
Violence would now flare with regularity around the children. In June, Melendez recalled, she returned home to find Elsa’s oldest, then 8, sleeping in her son’s bed. One clear rule established by Melendez was that none of the Oliver kids could sleep in her children’s beds.
“What the f--- are you doing?” Melendez said.
Elsa replied, “I’m not in the mood for you.”
Within minutes, the two women went at it. Elsa spit in Melendez’ face, and the mothers exchanged punches. Sierra watched, without intervening.
“My knee is on her chest and there is blood splashing around,” Melendez recalled. “[Elsa] started screaming like a pig getting killed.”
As Elsa fled the house with a bruised face, Jeremiah and his older brother stood mutely in the living room. Their sister screamed, “Is my Mommy coming back for me?”
Elsa eventually returned for her three children, while Melendez filed complaints with DCF, saying Elsa ignored her children and possibly abused substances.
The agency received two other complaints in June. One came from a Head Start staffer who said Jeremiah talked about the violent argument involving his mother and Melendez and how his family had moved in with his mother’s boyfriend. The other came from a clinician, who reported the two older children discussed the same bloody fight and their growing anxiety at home.
None of these complaints was assigned for further investigation.
By then, the social worker had also stopped visiting. No one was watching.
Jeremiah was last seen at his Head Start preschool June 26. Earlier that month, he had arrived hungry, and when the staff gave him food, he had gobbled it down so fast that he had vomited.
In a phone call, Elsa told her DCF social worker that she didn’t want to work with the agency anymore and declined to say where she was living. With that declaration, Elsa was taking a calculated gamble that DCF would yield to her wishes.
When faced with parents who want to end their voluntarily cooperation and evade appointments for months, the agency has only two ways to resolve things: Close the case, or ask lawyers to go to court and try to remove the children.
DCF supervisors did neither; the case languished.
By early fall, without telling DCF, Elsa and her children — along with Sierra — settled into a second-floor unit in a duplex on Kimball Street. A neighbor who rented the unit below Elsa, Odemaris Mary Santos, said she never saw Jeremiah, only the two older children.
Elsa also was rarely seen outdoors, though one day Santos observed Sierra chasing Elsa outside their apartment, with Elsa screaming in distress. Santos said she considered calling the police, but decided against getting involved.
On Dec. 2, a school bus driver noticed Jeremiah’s 9-year-old brother had a screwdriver in his backpack, and reported this to the school, according to an investigator. In a subsequent search of his backpack, school staff found a DVD case adorned with a Curious George cartoon. The enclosed DVD turned out to be a pornographic video.
The boy allegedly told staff that he didn’t know what was on the DVD, but “only adults can watch it” and that it belonged to his mother’s boyfriend. He also allegedly said that his mother had been very sick for days and he had to help take care of her in bed.
When the school asked Jeremiah’s sister about the DVD, she said it showed “girls kissing other girls.”
These disclosures prompted the school to file new complaints with DCF, and this time the agency took notice. Agency workers left urgent phone messages for Elsa without success. Staff knocked on her door, but no one answered even if the investigator could hear voices inside.
On Dec. 10, DCF went to court and received approval to take custody of Elsa’s three children.
Except there were only two.
When questioned by police and social workers, Jeremiah’s sister talked about Sierra threatening her mother with a knife and once seeing Sierra knock Jeremiah off the bathroom toilet. She described seeing Jeremiah with a bloody pinky finger, as if it might even be severed, records show.
She said she had not seen Jeremiah in some time.
When police later demanded that Elsa produce her son, she refused to talk. In court, she appeared with a blackened left eye.
Prosecutors later charged her and Sierra with child endangerment, among other crimes. They were booked and sent to separate lock-ups.
A child’s funeral, a common tragedy
On the morning of May 3, about an hour before Jeremiah’s funeral was set to begin, Jose Oliver entered the Rollstone Congregational Church in Fitchburg and approached his son’s white casket. He had not seen Jeremiah for two years, since his wife took the children and fled the Worcester apartment they had shared.
Wearing a white blazer and a New York Yankees cap backward, he gingerly touched the casket adorned with daisies and purple ribbons, his fingers trembling.
“Lord forgive me,” he said, as he began to sob. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Jose then collapsed into a seat in the front pew.
By the time the service began, the sanctuary was packed with about 200 people, many of whom did not know Jeremiah except as the missing preschooler who inspired scores of volunteers over the winter to scour the city’s abandoned lots and snow-covered fields for signs of him.
Jeremiah’s family filled the front rows, including his brother and sister, and his two teenage half-brothers. His maternal grandmother from Florida was also present, following the service with the aid of a woman sitting nearby who used sign language.
Jeremiah’s funeral is unlikely to be the last one this year involving a child who died of abuse or neglect while under DCF’s watch. On average over the past decade, about six children each year die under those circumstances, their burials haunting family members and social workers who wonder whether they could have done more.
DCF, besides firing the social worker in charge of Jeremiah’s case and two supervisors, later suspended another administrator for three days without pay for failing to prioritize and follow up on numerous complaints about Jeremiah’s safety.
In an obituary handed out at the service, Jeremiah’s mother was excluded from a list of surviving relatives. She remains incarcerated, having been moved last month from the women’s prison in Framingham to a mental health facility for evaluation. She had initially been deemed by a psychologist as competent to stand trial, though her lawyer says she often refuses to talk with him and he finds her mental state questionable.
Prosecutors say they are awaiting final autopsy results before possibly charging Elsa or her boyfriend, or both, with murder.
A law enforcement official briefed on the case said an initial examination of Jeremiah’s heavily decomposed body — which was found April 18, wrapped in a blanket, at the side of Interstate 190 in Sterling — did not show signs of blunt force trauma.
In the eulogy, the Rev. Thomas Hughes urged people in attendance to let go of their anger over Jeremiah’s death, and direct their attention to improving the “imperfect world” into which the boy was born.
“Hold on to forgiveness,” the pastor said. “Unforgiveness will eat you from the inside out and it will destroy your very being. It will make you angry, it will make you bitter, it will make you resentful.”
He urged everyone to remember the boy who loved Spider-Man, playing in the park, and “souped-up” cars. He said Jeremiah’s death was a call to action to help the young and vulnerable.
“We must not fail him now,” he said.