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After Fitchburg Case, Scrutiny Turns To Social Worker Caseloads

Elsa Oliver is escorted into court for her arraignment in Fitchburg District Court Tuesday on charges of reckless endangerment of a child and accessory after the fact of assault, in regards to her missing 5-year-old son, Jeremiah Oliver. (Rick Cinclair/Worcester Telegram & Gazette/AP, Pool)

Elsa Oliver is escorted into court for her arraignment in Fitchburg District Court Tuesday on charges of reckless endangerment of a child and accessory after the fact of assault, in regards to her missing 5-year-old son, Jeremiah Oliver. (Rick Cinclair/Worcester Telegram & Gazette/AP, Pool)

BOSTON — It’s been three months since relatives last saw 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, of Fitchburg, though authorities say they did not learn of his disappearance until last week.

The Oliver family has been under the supervision of the state Department of Children & Families since 2011, when authorities first got a report about possible neglect in the home.

As such, a social worker is required to visit the home once a month to ensure the child’s well being — something that did not happen in the Oliver family’s case.

The last time anyone with the state saw Jeremiah was on May 20, and the social worker assigned to him had not seen him since April, according to Gov. Deval Patrick.

The caseworker and supervisor in charge of the Oliver file were fired Tuesday. DCF said in a statement the workers failed in their basic duties by not checking in with the family.

But Jason Stephany, a spokesman for the union representing state social workers, disagrees.

“The sad truth is that caseloads at the Department of Children & Families have long stood at crisis levels,” he said. “Despite the formal agreement that this [DCF] commissioner signed in July, little has been done to address that.”

That agreement calls for social workers to carry no more than 18 cases, with an ideal number of no more than 15 cases. Stephany says more than 30 employees at the office that oversaw Jeremiah’s family are carrying more than 20 cases. He said:

You have more cases on your plate than you have days in the month to deal with them. There’s no guarantee that when you arrive at somebody’s home that they’re going to be there. Sometimes you’re going to have to make two, three, four, five attempts just to have face-to-face contact with the family. And that doesn’t even account for all of the social work, the actual work that needs to be done to assist these families and ensure that kids are being kept safe.

This issue is not a new one. In August 2012, the advocacy group Children’s Rights released a scathing report that said “DCF social workers are not consistently making required monthly visits to children, violating DCF policy and federal standards.”

It added that the state is meeting only a quarter of its federally required monthly visits.

“There’s been a history of the state making promises to fix these things, either in strategic plans, or a program improvement plan to the federal government,” said Sara Bartosz, Children’s Rights’ lead attorney. “The Legislature required a comprehensive plan from the child advocate when that office was created in 2008. Well, that plan’s never been submitted.”

The caseload issue becomes even murkier in Massachusetts because the state counts its cases differently. Whereas most other states count by the number of children assigned to a worker, Massachusetts counts by the number of families.

“In the mix of that are many sibling groups where the caseworker actually maybe has 21, 22 assigned families but is actually carrying a caseload of 35 children,” Bartosz said. “DCF knows that these caseloads are high. In their own files they have documents attesting to that fact, and there just hasn’t been urgent action taken to reduce them.”

Officials with the Department of Children & Families, including Commissioner Olga Roche, declined to speak on tape for this story. But Patrick said he wants a full review.

“There is an ongoing examination, investigation internally of the processes and procedures there to see where if any further responsibility lies within the organization,” Patrick said. “I have spoken both with the commissioner and the child advocate about that. I expect to hear greater detail and a thorough briefing from the commissioner in the next 10 days.”

In a statement, DCF said it will work to ensure manageable caseloads for workers, but stressed that Jeremiah’s case is not related to the issue. They called it a failure by the social worker to perform basic duties, and a failure by their supervisor to hold them accountable.

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