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As state fails Fitchburg boy, finger-pointing is warranted

The response of the union representing social workers is ludicrous

Five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg was dealt just about the worst possible hand in life: a drug-using father who disappeared from the family; an abused and allegedly negligent mother; and a mother’s boyfriend who, according to an account by Jeremiah’s 7-year-old sister, inflicted profound cruelties. The boy is now feared dead.

In such situations, a child must have an ally in the state government, someone to step in on behalf of all the millions of concerned citizens who simply won’t tolerate a child living under those circumstances. In Jeremiah’s case, the state failed utterly. By its own account, its social worker did not follow up on a report that Jeremiah’s mother was removing him from day care and did not make mandatory in-person home visits to a family suspected of abuse and neglect. The social worker’s supervisor didn’t properly oversee the case. Both have now been fired, in an admirable — and striking — show of accountability by the Department of Children and Families. But the state’s response to this serious lapse can’t end there.

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State social workers have a uniquely difficult job. There is no magic formula for determining when a child is safer outside the home, or when even a well-meaning parent becomes incapable of taking care of his or her children. Often, criticism comes in both directions, from cases in which children are injured or die because they were not removed from the home, and cases in which families were broken up for reasons that seem, in retrospect, unjustified. But the case of Jeremiah Oliver is quite different. In this instance, the state failed to follow its own policies, to make the required investigations necessary to determine whether Jeremiah and his two siblings were in danger. Jeremiah never had a chance.

Assuming that the facts laid out by DCF are correct — and there’s no evident reason to doubt them — the response of the union representing social workers is ludicrous. A spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 509 chided agency for “finger-pointing” rather than accepting blame as an institution. But when a social worker fails to check out reports and make required visits, finger-pointing is in order. The fact that DCF went so far as to fire the supervisor, as well, ought to dispel any concerns about scapegoating an underling for a wider failure.

And yet DCF’s internal investigation shouldn’t stop there. It’s not clear whether the lapses in this case are occurring elsewhere in the system. When one supervisor fails to make sure that a social worker is doing his or her job, it’s only natural to wonder if others, too, are falling down on their responsibilities. For now, citizens of Massachusetts can only hope and pray that Jeremiah is found alive. But they can also rightly insist that the mistakes that left the boy in danger aren’t repeated for any other children.

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