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DCF failures didn’t lead to Jeremiah Oliver’s death, report finds

Linda Spears of the Child Welfare League of America presented a reported on the Department of Children and Families.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Linda Spears of the Child Welfare League of America presented a reported on the Department of Children and Families.

A report released Wednesday found the Department of Children and Families was not responsible for the death of Jeremiah Oliver, sparking sharp criticism from lawmakers who said the finding downplayed the agency’s failure to properly monitor the boy’s troubled family.

The report, by the Child Welfare League of America, faulted DCF for inadequate staffing and technology and “grossly out of date” policies to protect children, but it said the agency could not have prevented Jeremiah’s death.

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“We did not conclude that DCF was responsible for Jeremiah’s death or that DCF could have prevented the tragic outcome for this little boy,” Linda Spears, the league’s vice president of policy and public affairs, said at a news conference Wednesday. “There is, however, significant evidence that some staff did not do their job in the Oliver case.”

Spears said the $150,000 state-funded report did not attempt to assign individual blame for Jeremiah’s death but sought to address broader problems at the agency and in the field of child welfare. For example, it faulted state policymakers for failing to pay attention not just to DCF, but to larger issues such as poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness that can lead to violence against children.

The Child Welfare League of America is a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for vulnerable children and families. Its report was released as Governor Deval Patrick, who commissioned the study, was traveling in Israel, promoting business interests.

Reached by phone, Patrick said the conclusion that DCF could not have prevented Jeremiah’s death was based on a “responsible examination” of the facts.

“That doesn’t mean DCF can’t be strengthened,” Patrick said.

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The report’s findings were challenged by some lawmakers, who disputed the idea that there was no clear link between the failure of social workers to perform required monthly visits to the boy’s home and his death.

“Obviously, DCF did not murder Jeremiah Oliver, but DCF could have protected Jeremiah Oliver and could possibly have prevented his death,” said Representative David P. Linsky, the chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which has been reviewing DCF. “So, in that sense, they are very much responsible for his death.”

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo also questioned the findings, saying the social worker, supervisor, and manager who failed to ensure timely checks on the boy’s family “were somewhat complicit” in failing to protect him.

“I’m not sure if that’s part of the report,” he said, “but it should have been.”

DCF has been under fire since acknowledging in December that its workers had lost track of Jeremiah months earlier. His body was discovered on the side of the highway in Sterling last month. Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, have been charged with abusing the child, but no one has been charged with killing him.

Three DCF employees were fired for their negligence in handling the case, and Olga Roche, who was commissioner at the time, resigned. Jeremiah was just one of a number of children who have died recently while under DCF watch, prompting outrage and calls for change.

The league’s review, launched in January, examined Jeremiah’s case, as well as DCF's policies, procedures, and training guidelines. League officials conducted six focus groups with foster parents, advocates, and state officials, and circulated a 26-question survey to 1,100 DCF workers.

The report found a range of problems at the agency. It said that many DCF policies are outdated and that its workers lack adequate mobile technology to be able to log home visits from the road, allowing managers to spot missed visits and other problems. It also concluded that DCF needs more money, beyond the funding increases that Patrick and lawmakers have proposed for the upcoming fiscal year.

The money would help reduce caseloads, which are at their highest point in 20 years, Spears said. Currently, she said, social workers handle on average about 20 cases each, compared with the recommended level of 15.

The secretary of health and human services, John Polanowicz, said that the report will help the administration improve the agency and that he has already taken steps to address some of its key findings. He said, for example, that DCF has added 90 social workers since January and has distributed 2,000 iPads to social workers in the field.

Polanowicz also announced the formation of a “kitchen cabinet” of child welfare specialists to advise DCF’s interim commissioner, Erin Deveney, a former state transportation official who has no prior child welfare experience.

“Our top priority going forward will be to use these recommendations as a roadmap . . . to realize the important results we owe to the children of the Commonwealth and their families,” Deveney said.

Patrick is traveling in Israel and the United Arab Emirates this week. His absence sparked criticism from some Republican lawmakers.

“It’s unfortunate the governor is out of the country,” said Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr, the House Republican leader. “On an issue that’s garnered so much attention . . . he should have changed his plans to be here, because I think it’s that important.”

Patrick, in a call to the Globe from Herzliya, Israel, defended his decision to travel overseas.

“I’m doing the job here, too,” he said, adding that he had been briefed on the report.

It was not clear all of the findings would be embraced.

Pressed by reporters, Polanowicz would not commit to seeking more funding for DCF, as the report recommended. He said the administration needed to study the issue more closely. That raised some alarms from child welfare advocates.

“We largely support the recommendations included in the report but can’t help but ask what comes next,” Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, a youth advocacy group, said in a statement. “If the Commonwealth truly wants to make improvements to DCF to better protect our children, we are going to have to prioritize finding the money to implement reforms.”

Some lawmakers said that while the report did not hold DCF responsible for Jeremiah’s death, it pointed to a larger failing on the part of the Legislature and the administration to combat the problems of drug addiction and mental illness that can lead to child abuse.

“I really do think there is collective responsibility here,” said Senator Michael Barrett, cochairman of the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, which oversees DCF. “That tells me DCF cannot deal with the problems of these families by itself.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

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