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    Child welfare agency increases home visits

    Massachusetts social workers and investigators, under scrutiny after losing track of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who is now feared dead, increased visits to children in the state’s care in December, the head of the state’s child welfare agency said Wednesday.

    Department of Children and Families commissioner Olga Roche disclosed the increase in an e-mail to staff that sought to rally employees after criticism surrounding the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver.

    “I want to let you all know how grateful I am for your hard work, tireless dedication, and commitment to our children and families,” Roche wrote. “I know that many of you are feeling overwhelmed right now by the constant scrutiny on our department.”


    Nearly 95 percent of the approximately 36,000 children under state supervision were visited in person by an agency employee in December.

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    Between November 2012 and November 2013, an average of 82.5 percent of children under state supervision were visited monthly, Roche wrote. A change in the way visitation rates are calculated is one reason for the increase, said Alec Loftus, an agency spokesman.

    “We are now tracking when a DCF staff member has an in-person contact with the child,’’ Loftus said in an e-mail. “This includes all investigators and social workers rather than only tracking when the assigned ongoing social worker or adoption worker visited the child.”

    Jeremiah Oliver was last seen Sept. 14, nearly four months after he was last visited by a state social worker. His mother, Elsa Oliver, has pleaded not guilty to charges that she allegedly allowed her boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr. to abuse her son. Sierra has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

    The Department of Children and Families has added 70 social workers and promoted 90 since Jan. 1, Roche said. More than 20 retired social workers have agreed to return to conduct investigations.


    Roche also announced a program to outfit 60 tablets with the case management system so social workers can access files while on the road.

    Governor Deval Patrick has proposed spending $9.2 million in next year’s budget to hire more social workers and pay for technology upgrades. If that budget is approved, the state could hire 175 additional staff, bringing caseload ratios closer to 15 to 1, down from the current 18 to 1, Roche said.

    Jason Stephany, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents most of the Department of Children and Families’ employees, called the developments important first steps. “We still have long road ahead of us,” he said.

    Laura Crimaldi can be reached at