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Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche spoke to reporters during a press conference announcing that the department had fired both the social worker and supervisor responsible for oversight of Fitchburg boy Jeremiah Oliver.
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche spoke to reporters during a press conference announcing that the department had fired both the social worker and supervisor responsible for oversight of Fitchburg boy Jeremiah Oliver.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Three weeks before a social worker was fired for grossly mishandling the case of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy now feared dead, state officials promoted her, citing what it called her commendable job performance.

The social worker was promoted Nov. 27 and received a 5 percent bump in pay, said the state Department of Children and Families. DCF fired her Dec. 16, shortly after learning that Jeremiah Oliver had not been seen since September, saying the social worker had failed to properly monitor the boy's troubled family.

Officials said the social worker's promotion had been part of "merit-based" promotions given to 239 social workers in the agency statewide. The social worker "met the criteria for this promotion, as confirmed by her manager, who has now been terminated," for her failures in the handling of Jeremiah's case, said Cayenne Isaksen, a DCF spokeswoman.

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Jeremiah Oliver, the 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who was last seen by a relative on Sept. 14 and is now feared dead.
Jeremiah Oliver, the 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who was last seen by a relative on Sept. 14 and is now feared dead.Family photo

DCF officials acknowledged the promotion Monday when asked about it by the Globe. Earlier in the day, the agency had announced the firing of an area program manager, who became the third DCF staffer to lose a job in the Oliver case, joining the social worker and her supervisor fired two weeks ago. None has been identified by name.

Olga I. Roche, the DCF commissioner, said Monday that the just-fired program manager failed to ensure that the supervisor followed up on reports that Jeremiah and his two older siblings were being abused. Roche also said the manager knew the social worker was not making monthly visits to Jeremiah's home, as required by department policy, yet failed to correct the problem.

Roche also provided new details about the supervisor who was fired earlier this month, saying she entered "false information" on reports about the family. Roche said that the supervisor reported in September that the Oliver family's new apartment was clean, without hazards, and adequately furnished, even though no one from the agency had ever visited the apartment.

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"The failure and misconduct of the staff in this case contributed to the tragedy,'' Roche said at a press conference, where she unveiled the findings of an internal inquiry into the department's involvement with Jeremiah. "The staff missed multiple opportunities to engage the Oliver family. The absence of home visits to assess the safety of children was a serious failure.''

Jeremiah's mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, 22, have been charged in connection with the case, which is being treated as a potential homicide.

Governor Deval Patrick said that the conclusion of DCF's internal investigation, which included a detailed report of contacts the agency has had with the family since September 2011, "provides some answers about this sad case."

"While the work of the vast majority of the people who work at DCF is exemplary, the failure of certain staff in this case casts a long and unfortunate shadow," he said.

The governor expressed support for Roche, praising her "accountability and transparency" and said he will "continue to count on that in her ongoing management of the agency."

"For now," Patrick added, "finding Jeremiah and caring for his siblings remain paramount."

DCF officials have focused much of the blame on the social worker who was assigned to the Oliver family in January.

Roche said the social worker last saw Jeremiah during a home visit April 30, even though three reports of abuse and neglect of the Oliver children, all stemming from a single incident, were filed with DCF in June. That same month, staff at Jeremiah's preschool called the social worker and reported that the boy was coming to school hungry and appeared to be eating poorly at home.

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"This is a social worker who continued to receive call after call that there are concerns about the case and concerns about the care of the children, and failed to do the basic responsibility of a social worker: to go out there and sit down the family and follow up," Roche said.

DCF officials say that, in addition to mishandling Jeremiah's case, their investigation also revealed that the social worker failed to check regularly on seven of the other 18 households in her caseload.

The last time anyone from DCF saw Jeremiah was May 20, when an agency investigator went to the Oliver home to follow up on a report that Elsa Oliver was abusing her oldest son, who is 9. The investigator noted that he spoke "at length" with Jeremiah during that visit, and described the boy as "precocious, talkative, and articulate."

The last time anyone saw Jeremiah was Sept. 14, when he was seen by a relative.

Yet DCF did not notice that the boy was missing until nearly three months later, on Dec. 2. That was when his 7-year-old sister told staff at her school that Sierra had been brutally beating her, her mother, and her two brothers. That report sparked a broader law enforcement hunt for the boy, which is ongoing.

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To prevent a similar tragedy, Roche said, she has directed managers to confirm that families under their supervision are receiving regular home visits. DCF staff has also been ordered to investigate young parents with children under age 5 and children of any age whose parents have a history of drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, or unresolved childhood trauma.

The union that represents DCF social workers has seized on the case to renew longtime complaints about heavy caseloads at the agency. The fired social worker had filed multiple grievances, saying she had been given as many as 20 cases at a time, even though the agency has agreed not to give social workers more than 15.

Roche, however, rejected the notion that heavy caseloads may have been a factor in the bungling of Jeremiah's case.

"In this case, it is about a social worker and a supervisor not seeing the critical needs of the children, not seeing the urgency of the children, and making sure there was follow-up," Roche said. "They never offered any reasonable explanation why those things did not happen."

State lawmakers are planning to hold hearings on the case next month.

Bruce E. Tarr, the Senate Republican leader, said Monday that while Roche was right to fire the three DCF workers, "the situation deserves more."

"First, a system that tolerated falsified reports and lies needs to be reviewed independently to ensure that there are no other children who are vulnerable due to lack of home visits or other forms of oversight," Tarr said. "In addition, we must all collectively determine what reforms are needed to ensure that no other child goes for months without needed home visits. And we must also continue to hope and pray for the safe return of this young boy."

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Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com.