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JOAN VENNOCHI

DCF needs accountability, oversight

Jeremiah Oliver fell through the cracks, as we euphemistically say whenever a child who is supposed to be under the protection of a state agency comes to harm.

So far, three state workers have been held accountable in the matter of the 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, who is missing and presumed dead: the family’s social worker, the social worker’s supervisor, and the supervisor’s supervisor. A fourth supervisor was suspended for three days without pay and reassigned. The child’s mother and her boyfriend have also been charged.

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Case closed? It shouldn’t be. There could be other children at risk. An independent review of Massachusetts policy and its systemwide implementation is more than warranted, given the facts reported so far in Jeremiah’s case.

After its initial investigation into Jeremiah’s disappearance, the Department of Children and Families essentially came up with a variation of the ever-popular “rogue” scenario to explain what happened. Like the “rogue” state lab worker who tampered with evidence, a rogue caseworker was primarily to blame for this sad outcome, according to DCF Commissioner Olga Roche.

Jeremiah was last seen by a relative on Sept. 14. On Dec. 2, his 7-year-old sister told staff at her elementary school that her mother’s boyfriend had been beating her, her mother, and her two brothers — and that she didn’t know where Jeremiah was. His whereabouts remain a mystery.

Once he was determined to be missing, the Globe reported that the social worker who was assigned to his case hadn’t been making the monthly, in-person visits required by agency rules. Jeremiah had last been seen by a social worker on May 20. The social worker’s supervisor knew the visits weren’t taking place and so did the supervisor’s supervisor. Nothing was done about it.

Incredibly, the social worker was promoted for commendable work, two weeks before she was fired for grossly mishandling this case.

Why should anyone believe the problem begins and ends with these now ex-state employees ?

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Despite squawks from the union representing the social worker, the firings are appropriate. Given the documented gross negligence of the social worker, further prosecution might also be warranted.

In the aftermath, why should anyone believe the problem begins and ends with these now ex-state employees?

Roche said that DCF will conduct its own internal review of as many as 40,000 cases. Yet there already seems to be a bias on the part of state administrators toward seeing the problem as isolated to one office and one small group of people.

In response, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and the three other Republican senators have called upon state Auditor Suzanne Bump and Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha to conduct a full review “independently or in concert” with the DCF. In their Dec. 20 letter to Bump and Cunha, the tiny Republican Senate caucus wrote: “Increasingly, as our understanding of the department’s failure to carry out its mandate expands, there are further growing concerns for all other children in the DCF system.”

They are right to demand independent scrutiny; it is justified. Jeremiah deserves that much and so do the thousands of other children who are supposed to be able to count on the state to protect them from harm.

Tragedies like this happen periodically in Massachusetts despite the best of intentions; history shows that no administration has been immune from them. That’s why it’s important to maintain the highest standards for hiring, training, and supervising social workers. Periodic reviews by an outside group of child-welfare experts could also be implemented as a preventive measure.

It’s also time to rethink what constitutes the best placement and services — home, foster care, or residential treatment — for each child based on individual needs.

It takes tragedy for the public and media to focus on this shadow world of vulnerable children caught in family dysfunction and institutional breakdown. But history also shows that any public outrage generated by the headlines is quick to dissipate. When’s the last time Massachusetts engaged in a serious, extended conversation about child-welfare issues?

Absent a story like Jeremiah’s, who’s advocating loudly for more resources, or different resources? Who’s listening?

There are no easy or cheap answers. But the cost is even higher when a child falls through those cracks.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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