Judge grants funds for extra psychological evaluation for mother of missing Fitchburg boy

Elsa Oliver is led into District Court for a hearing Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, in Fitchburg, Mass., where a judge ruled she was competent to face charges, including reckless endangerment of a child. Her son Jeremiah Oliver, 5, has not been seen by relatives since September but police learned of the disappearance only in December. The case led to the firing of three workers in the Leominster office of the state Department of Children and Families for not properly checking on the family. (AP Photo/Sentinel & Enterprise, Brett Crawford)
Elsa Oliver was led into the courtroom for the late January hearing.
Brett Crawford/Sentinel & Enterprise/AP

The attorney for Elsa Oliver, the mother of the 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who is missing and feared dead, was granted a request today for $2,500 in state funds to pay for an additional psychological assessment of Oliver’s mental state.

At a brief hearing in Fitchburg District Court, defense attorney James Reardon Jr. told the court that he is still “substantially unable to communicate with” Oliver. She has been held in jail since failing to speak up about the whereabouts of her son, Jeremiah.

Even though a recent state evaluation found her mentally competent, Reardon said he found his client unable to concentrate on extended conversations. Judge Robert Pellegrini said that, given the gravity of the charges Oliver faces, he would grant the funds.

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Reardon said in a motion filed with the court seeking the funds that he wanted to hire an “expert forensic psychologist” to help in preparing Oliver’s case, which could include “mental impairment defenses, as well as duress and intimate partner violence defense.”

Friday’s hearing was far more placid than the last hearing in late January when Jeremiah’s uncle, Sandrino Oliver, disrupted court proceedings by yelling, “Where’s my nephew? What happened to my nephew?”

Sandrino was at the courthouse Friday and sat quietly on a bench next to his wife.

Jeremiah’s biological father, Jose Oliver, was also at the courthouse and expressed his continued hope that Jeremiah would be found. He said the past two months searching for him have been emotionally overwhelming, but he tries his best to focus on the goal of finding Jeremiah.

“I have to hold in my emotions,” he said.

Reardon also requested that prosecutors turn over the records that they have received from the state Department of Children and Families, which had oversight over the family since the fall of 2011.

The lawyer for Oliver’s boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr., did not appear in court today and Reardon said he would be speaking on the other lawyer’s behalf. No additional matters surfaced in court related to Sierra’s case.

Oliver is being held on high bail after she pleaded not guilty to charges that she allegedly allowed Sierra, 22, to abuse her son. Sierra has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The disappearance — and presumed death — of the Fitchburg preschooler has ignited passionate criticism of the state’s child protection agency and a broad look at whether it is fulfilling its mandate to help some 34,000 children in its care.

For the past three years, the Oliver family was under the supervision of the DCF in response to complaints that the mother wasn’t able to properly care for her three children. Among other things, caseworkers were required to make monthly visits to check on each of the children. Yet the last time a DCF staffer visited the home was last May.

It was not until about seven months later, in the middle of December, that authorities realized that Jeremiah was missing. And that happened only because of a conversation between Jeremiah’s 7-year-old sister and a school staffer, in which the girl disclosed she had not seen her younger brother in some time. Since then, Jeremiah has not been found, his mother and her boyfriend have remained silent on the subject while behind bars, and three DCF staffers have been fired and one has been disciplined.

As law enforcement tries to solve the mystery of Jeremiah’s whereabouts — and decide whether to file murder charges against the mother and her boyfriend — state political leaders have launched a series of probes to see if any more children are at serious risk while under DCF supervision. Commissioner Olga Roche, who has been in the job for less than a year, has insisted children in the agency’s care are safe, but some of her critics have called for her ouster.

Meanwhile, teams of trained volunteers, with canines, are hoping to renew their search for Jeremiah when the weather improves.

Miguel Fleitas, a Fitchburg father of two who has military training in search and rescue operations, said the dogs can’t pick up scents with the thick ice and snow that has blanketed the region. He said if the area gets a few consecutive days of 40-degree weather, they will probably begin another search mission. Fleitas said many in the community are eager to do what they can to help but so far “it’s been frustrating because there’s so much snow.”

The next hearing in the case is slated for April 7.