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Lawmaker slams state agency for disappearance of Fitchburg boy

A leading state lawmaker today expressed outrage at the chief of the state’s child protection agency, who was testifying before a legislative panel about the agency’s failure to keep track of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who was reported missing in December and is feared dead.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche speaks 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, 5, who has not been seen since September. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe (Metro, levenson)
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe) The Boston Globe

“Your department lost track of a kid,” Representative David P. Linsky, chairman of the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee, told Olga Roche, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families. “That’s inexcusable. That’s absolutely inexcusable.”

Roche, flanked by the department’s chief counsel, repeatedly emphasized that DCF fired the social worker, supervisor, and manager responsible for ensuring the well-being of the 5-year-old boy, Jeremiah Oliver.

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She said the social worker’s failure to visit the boy’s home every month represented “a gross disregard of policies and procedures,” but also a “unique circumstance.”

Asked by Linsky if she could assure the public that every one of the 36,000 children under DCF supervision is present, alive and healthy, Roche said, “Yes.”

Linsky said he believed many employees at the department did good work, but added, “Getting it right 99.9 percent of the time when we’re dealing with children just simply isn’t good enough.”

The Globe reported today that Governor Deval Patrick is proposing a $32.6 million budget increase for the agency.

“We’re going to give you whatever money you need, I’m sure. The speaker is going to assure that this happens,” Linsky told Roche. But he added, “If there is a total breakdown in the supervision and the work … no amount of money is going to fix this at all.”

The boy’s mother, Elsa Oliver, 38, and her boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr., 22, are both facing abuse charges for violent acts against Jeremiah Oliver, but neither has been charged with murdering the boy. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Despite searches by police and concerned citizens in Fitchburg, no sign of the boy has been found. Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. has said he fears the boy may have been killed.

Also today, the Office of the Child Advocate, which is an independent office charged with overseeing state agencies who work with children, released a report on the DCF’s involvement with the boy’s family.

The report said that the boy’s family had been involved with a social service agency in another state — but that state never shared its information until after Jeremiah Oliver was reported missing.

The report found that DCF asked the agency from the other state, which was not identified, for its information on the Oliver family in 2011 —but never got a reply until after the boy disappeared.

“The Oliver family had a history of serious child protective concerns in another state that did not follow the family to Massachusetts,’’ the report said. “Although DCF investigators in Massachusetts were aware of this history and requested more information in 2011, the child protective agency in the other state did not respond.’’

“It is critical that child protection records be made available to other states in appropriate circumstances, such as during investigations, so that social workers can assess the risk and safety of the child,” the report said.

Child Advocate Gail Garinger said in a statement that the inquiry conducted by her office found that the DCF office that oversees Fitchburg had among the highest caseloads in the state, but that situation did not excuse the failure of the direct social worker and two supervisors to properly monitor the Oliver family.

“During the course of our investigation we have tried to understand how a five-year-old boy could have disappeared during a time when his family was involved with DCF,’’ Garinger said. “Everyone at DCF agrees that the most basic obligation of frontline social workers is to ‘visit your children.’ This is the cornerstone of protective work but did not happen with Jeremiah Oliver.”

Authorities were alerted to the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver on Dec. 2 when his sister told counselors at Reingold Elementary School in Fitchburg she and her two brothers were being abused in their home and that she had not seen her younger brother recently.

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