Governor Deval Patrick on Thursday defended the head of the state’s child welfare department after the agency has come under sharp criticism for neglecting a troubled Fitchburg family, but he said the commissioner must determine whether other supervisors shared responsibility for the failures.
Amid public outrage over the mishandling of the case, Patrick said he did not believe Olga I. Roche, the commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, should resign. But he said key questions remained as to how social workers failed to visit the home of missing 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver for several months, despite reports of abuse.
“Her job right now is to get to the bottom of what happened. I’m not satisfied that we have done that yet,” Patrick told reporters on Thursday, according to a transcript provided by his office. “There are still some questions that I have, and more to the point that she has, about whether there are any patterns and whether the responsibility goes higher.”
DCF has already fired the state social worker who had not made mandatory monthly visits to the family’s home, along with her supervisor. And on Thursday, officials reassigned an area program manager in the Leominster office, who had overseen the supervisor, for the duration of the investigation.
“Any determination as to the future of this or any other employee will be made after the conclusion of the full and transparent investigation ordered by the Governor,” DCF said in a statement.
Also Thursday, the state Senate’s four Republican members said they will be releasing a letter on Friday calling for an independent investigation into the failures of DCF and the boy’s disappearance.
“We want to know if there are possibly other children under DCF supervision who may be in a similar situation,” said state Senator Donald Humason, a Westfield Republican. “It’s important to know whether this is a systemic problem or an isolated incident.”
Jason Stephany, a spokesman for Services Employees International Union Local 509, said, “If the allegations put forward by Commissioner Roche are proven true by a formal investigation, then the individuals involved—including Department managers—must be held accountable. Those who played a role in this tragedy must accept responsibility.
“The Department of Children & Families cannot afford to let any single case paper over the real, systemic caseload crisis that overshadows the critical work DCF social workers undertake each day. The time for promises is over.
Stephany said that caseloads for social workers were at “crisis levels,” and that Roche had done little to reduce them.
Since May, the fired social worker had filed six grievances with her managers complaining about her elevated caseload, according to an official familiar with the details of the case who was not authorized to speak publicly.
During some months, she carried more than 20 cases, the official said. By agreement, caseloads are not supposed to exceed 15.
The fired social worker was based in a Leominster office that consistently has among the state’s highest caseloads, the official said. Nearly half of the caseworkers in that office filed grievances over excessive caseloads in June, according to the union. Almost two-thirds—49 of 75—filed grievances in October.
Also, over the past year the number of social workers handling 20 cases or more has nearly quadrupled, from eight in October 2012 to 30 this October, the union said.
But Patrick rejected the notion that understaffing and high caseloads were to blame.
“There is no set of circumstances that could reasonably explain why someone who can’t get around to making the kinds of home visits, the eyes-on visits that were required,” he said. “Look, I understand and have heard for some time the concerns from the union about the caseload at DCF. I get that. But that can’t be solved simply, and that is a separate issue from what happened with this poor family.”
Jeremiah has been missing since September and is feared dead, and the agency has acknowledged a “serious failure” in monitoring the family.
The fired social worker last saw Jeremiah in May after his older brother complained to school staff that his mother was beating him. In September, the social worker recommended that the agency end its supervision of the family, saying they were doing well despite a history of drug abuse and violence.
Agency officials have since learned that the social worker failed to conduct regular checks on eight households in her caseload. Continued...