BOSTON (AP) — An independent review will be conducted of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, the state agency that has come under criticism for failing to keep track of a 5-year-old boy who has been missing for months and is feared dead, Gov. Deval Patrick's administration announced Thursday.
The outside probe will be conducted by the Child Welfare League of America, a 94-year-old organization that advocates on behalf of children around the country, the administration said in a statement.
An internal investigation by the agency of the case involving Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg, whose family had been under DCF supervision, led to three employees being fired and a fourth disciplined. The boy has not been seen by relatives since September, but police only recently learned of the disappearance.
"DCF is responsible for protecting the Commonwealth's most vulnerable children from abuse and neglect, and this is not a responsibility that we take lightly," Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz said in the statement.
The outside review will cost the state approximately $40,000, according to a spokesman for the secretary.
Patrick told reporters Wednesday that he believes a "fresh set of eyes" might be necessary to look at the agency, though he has repeatedly said the majority of state social workers do good work under difficult circumstances and that he has confidence in DCF Commissioner Olga Roche.
The independent probe will seek to make sure DCF has strong policies and procedures in place to protect children and strengthen families, Polanowicz said. It will look at how the agency deals with families with young children, including areas such as home visits and processing of reports.
Christine James Brown, president and chief executive of the Child Welfare League of America, said the organization would bring to Massachusetts its expertise in working with similar agencies nationwide.
"We know that violence, substance abuse and trauma can have a devastating effect on all children and especially young children," Brown said. "We also know that there are a range of specific administrative and front-line practices that are necessary to help keep children safe."
The internal investigation found that DCF staff missed multiple opportunities to engage with the Oliver family through home visits and sometimes went months between meetings with the family.
Jeremiah's mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., have pleaded not guilty to child endangerment, abuse and other charges. Oliver is being held on $100,000 bail and Sierra is being held without bail.
A prosecutor told a judge last month that Oliver did nothing to protect her son from abuse.
Police, relatives and friends of the family have searched for Jeremiah without success. The boy's two older siblings were placed in state custody.
State Sen. Mike Barrett, D-Lexington, has called on the administration to release data on staffing at DCF and other key human services agencies. Barrett, the Senate chairman of the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said he wants to know whether a "systemic problem" exists and how state budget cuts in recent years have affected the agencies.
Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc and Mark Pratt contributed to this report.