Governor Deval Patrick today said the case of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy missing and now feared dead, has created an opportunity to “rethink and reinvigorate” the Department of Children and Families.
At a State House press conference, Patrick said he has empowered the Child Welfare League of America to conduct a sweeping examination of DCF’s policies, social worker caseloads, and licensing rules, among other issues, and to provide periodic reports. The governor said he wants that report completed by spring so that the Legislature would have time to take up any reforms that may be necessary before lawmakers conclude major business in July.
Patrick also said he has ordered state IT leaders to develop a computer system that will provide DCF staff access to real-time reports.
He has further asked DCF’s regional offices to reapportion the towns that they cover to more evenly distribute the caseload burdens between various regions of the state.
“I think we have a great opportunity, presented ironically, as a result of this terrible tragedy, to rethink and reinvigorate the department,’’ Patrick said.
Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, and her boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra Jr., 22, face charges of abusing the boy, but neither has been charged with killing him. They have pleaded not guilty and a judge last week ruled that Oliver is competent to stand trial.
Despite searches by police and volunteers in Fitchburg, there has been no sign of Jeremiah’s whereabouts since sometime last year, and Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. has said he fears the boy may have been killed.
Patrick reiterated that the administration has already taken some strong steps to respond to Jeremiah’s disappearance. He pointed out that DCF Commissioner Olga I. Roche has fired three people, including the social worker who was supposed to conduct home visits at the Oliver home last year, but failed to do so. Oliver’s disappearance wasn’t discovered until his sister reported being abused to Fitchburg school officials in December.
Social workers at the state Department of Children and Families apparently failed to make nearly 1 in 5 of their required monthly home visits in 2013, according to a report by the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent agency that investigated the department’s mishandling of the Oliver case.