FITCHBURG — A state social worker not only failed to carry out mandatory monthly visits to the home where 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver lived, but also recommended that the family, which has a history of drug abuse and violence, be released from state oversight because it was doing well, the commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families said Wednesday.
The recommendation in September to end supervision of the troubled household came even though it had been four months since social workers had seen the boy, state officials acknowledged. Jeremiah is now missing and feared dead.
Governor Deval Patrick, in his first comments on the case Wednesday, called the events "devastating." The governor said he wants to know if other children have been missed and if someone up the chain of command should have noticed the agency's failure to check on Jeremiah.
Patrick also said he is concerned whether an agency review this year of 16,000 children under age 5 is credible, given that Jeremiah's case was checked in September and raised no alarms. That review followed two brutal assaults on infants within weeks of each other in July, when a 3-month-old Lynn infant died and a Martha's Vineyard baby nearly died.
Also on Wednesday, Speaker Robert A. DeLeo announced that the House would hold oversight hearings into the department. He made the disclosure after state Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the Republican leader of the House, called on the chamber to hold hearings with DCF officials and caseworkers about their policies and procedures.
Overall, Olga I. Roche, the DCF commissioner, said that the social worker failed to check regularly on eight of the 18 households in her caseload. "The social worker, again, was putting other families at risk," said Roche, who added that other caseworkers have since found that those families are stable and well.
The social worker and her supervisor, who allegedly did not enforce the visitation policy, have been fired. The social worker had more than five years of experience, Roche said, and the supervisor had been in that role for three years after several years as a caseworker.
"This was not a stable home situation," Roche said. "If they had brought this case to management's attention, we would have immediately found out that this family had not been visited and . . . they would not have recommended the case for closing."
The last time the social worker saw Jeremiah alive was during a home visit on May 20, a check that was prompted by a complaint from Jeremiah's older brother to school staff that his mother was beating him, officials said.
The child's mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, 22, have been charged in the case, which is being treated as a potential homicide. Oliver is undergoing a court-ordered mental evaluation. A dangerousness hearing for Sierra, who is in custody, is scheduled Dec. 24 at Fitchburg District Court.
A formal police investigation was initiated Dec. 2 when staff at the Reingold Elementary School noticed that Jeremiah's 7-year-old sister was "aggressive toward other children and unkempt and looked in distress," Roche said.
The school then contacted DCF, and the agency raised a broader alarm about the family.
In an interview with authorities, the girl said she had seen Sierra punch her brothers and hit them with a belt with such force that one of them bled, according to a police report. The pinky finger of one of her brothers appeared to have been cut off, she said.
In addition, the girl said, she and her mother had both been beaten by Sierra, who moved into the home in May. The last time Jeremiah was seen alive was on Sept. 14, by a relative, police said.
Sierra has been charged with two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault and battery on a child causing bodily injury. Oliver has been charged with being an accessory after the fact to the attacks, and two counts of reckless endangerment of a child.
Patrick said that he does not consider Jeremiah's case to be an indictment of the department. "I don't think it's a systemwide breakdown, and this is not to diminish the incredible, profound significance of what happened," the governor said. "There are hundreds of triumphs every day in the lives of children, thanks to the people who work at DCF. They don't get any attention. When there is a tragedy like this, it gets a lot of attention, and it should. But that has to be kept in balance."
However, Patrick said, "I want the public to know that when they mess up, the hammer is going to have to come down."
Roche said the review of all cases involving young children showed the agency is working well. Of 16,000 children under age 5 that were reviewed, 16 had to be removed from their homes, she said.
In Fitchburg Wednesday night, about 50 people attended a candlelight vigil across the street from the three-story, multifamily home where Jeremiah lived. Police circulated missing person fliers with his picture, and a moment of silence was held. In brief remarks, speakers in English and Spanish prayed for his safe return and urged anyone with information to contact police.
"We're all family in God, period," Marcus Scott, the city's parking control supervisor, said after a pause. "Amen," some in the crowd responded.
A neighbor who attended the vigil, Sandra Texidor, 46, issued a plea to Jeremiah's mother when she spoke to reporters.
"Please, just say where he's at," Texidor said. "Just say where he's at. God forgives everybody. Say where he's at. That's the only way you can be free, Elsa."
Texidor said she has often seen Oliver walking quickly through the neighborhood. "It looked like she was a very worried mom," Texidor said.
A cousin of Jeremiah's, 20-year-old Sandro Oliver of Worcester, also urged Oliver and her boyfriend to disclose Jeremiah's whereabouts.
"It's crazy," Sandro Oliver said of his family's plight. "Can't eat. Can't sleep. We've got to come here and do this."
Rose Valcourt, 38, Jeremiah's aunt, expressed anger that social workers had gone months without checking on him. Valcourt asked people to search for her nephew.
"If people could look in their backyards, their basements, just check," she said.