Mass. fires 3rd worker in missing boy case

AP News
Posted: Dec 30, 2013 7:36 PM

BOSTON (AP) — A third employee of Massachusetts' social services agency has been fired for her involvement in the case of a 5-year-old boy who has not been seen for months and is feared dead.

The commissioner of the state Department of Children & Families said Monday that an area program manager was fired after an investigation found she failed to ensure any follow-up after multiple reports of abuse and neglect in Jeremiah Oliver's Fitchburg home.

A social worker and supervisor were dismissed earlier this month. In addition, Commissioner Olga Roche said another manager was given a three-day suspension without pay and removed from a decision-making position.

She said an internal investigation by the agency found staff missed multiple opportunities to engage with the Oliver family through home visits and sometimes went months between meetings with the family.

The boy disappeared in September, but police didn't learn that until earlier this month. They are treating the case as a possible homicide.

The boy's mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., have been arrested. They have pleaded not guilty to child endangerment, abuse and other charges.

Roche said that the supervisor entered false information including that the children were well cared for and the apartment well furnished.

"This information was never available to them because they never visited the home," she said. Roche said the supervisor knew that the home visits were not being conducted by the social worker.

She said the fired social worker had a comparable workload as another social worker who had worked with the family at a different DCF office and visited them regularly after they first became involved with the department in September 2011.

The care declined when the family moved to Fitchburg and their case was transferred to the DCF's North Central Area Office in January 2013. The new social worker assigned to the family "failed to do the basic responsibility of a social worker," Roche said.

She said months went by when the social worker, who had five years of experience on the job, failed to make visits and failed to follow up on reports.

The report released by the department Monday chronicled a breakdown in oversight of a troubled family.

According to the report, the last time anyone from the department spoke to the 5-year-old was on May 20, when an agency investigator described the boy as "precocious, talkative and articulate."

The report said the social worker failed to conduct home visits in June or July despite reports of abuse or neglect. There was also no record of a home visit in August and the social worker said she didn't conduct a visit in September or October.

In November, the social worker spoke with the oldest sibling at school who said Jeremiah was living with their "other family" who he didn't know. The social worker made an unannounced home visit, but no one answered the door.

On Dec. 10 the department obtained custody of the three children, but Elsa Oliver refused to disclose the location of her youngest child.

The Boston Globe also reported Monday that the fired social worker was promoted on Nov. 27 and received a 5 percent pay hike in pay as part of a statewide, merit-based promotion given to 239 social workers.

Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement Monday that the "failure to appropriately monitor the family and respond to multiple warning signs is simply unacceptable."

A union representing social workers said Monday that the department has to address the issue of overloaded caseworkers.

Roche said Monday she is also directing staff to investigate all allegations involving children under the age of 5 with young parents or parents with a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues or unresolved childhood trauma.