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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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  • rich4321

    Why should the social workers be responsible? The parents are responsible for their children, they should not have children in the first place. So many unfit parents have no right to have children and they pass their responsibly to the society.

    • Lawrence

      Yes, you are right. These people are irresponsible, lack self control, often on drugs, do not seek higher education and have kids that contribute to societies problems.

      But since we do not have control over who has kids, the state is burdened with overseeing at least some of these cases, although not very well.

      They have failed in the past and kids get abused or killed by their parents even under the “supervision” of the state.

    • raysgirl

      While you may have a point, these kids did not ask to born into such situations. Do you really think it is right to let them pay with their lives?

  • ElliFrank

    Every time a vulnerable child is “lost” or murdered in these kinds of circumstances, there is a rush to blame individuals — a social worker, supervisor, etc. Until the systemic problems within DCF are addressed in measurable ways — and the funding provided to create the necessary changes — more children will be harmed or even die.

    This is not a new problem, and any leaders who express moral outrage about this poor child’s disappearance (and likely death) as if they don’t know what’s going on are being disingenuous. They are disrespecting the lives of the countless children who have been abused, neglected, and murdered.

    These are predictable problems and tragedies that can be addressed and prevented, but only if there is the will to do so. Who in our state is going to make that commitment and actually follow up?

  • raysgirl

    While I was appalled to read this story, I was not surprised. Firing the social worker and the supervisor isn’t going to help anything. Two more overworked, underpaid, and maybe uncaring people will take their place in the same system that guarantees this outcome will repeat itself over and over. I don’t have a good answer, but we already know what the answer IS NOT: the current models of child protection the basis of which has not changed in decades. Some foster homes are not much better. There are some great foster parents out there, to be sure, but unless we GUARANTEE, ALL of them will be great, we have no business taking kids from their homes. We have already proven, over and over, and over, that we cannot protect endangered kids from their own parents. So, what is needed is a whole, new model of child protection. One that will be adequately funded and staffed with experienced people who can make it work. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing, the same way, over and over and expecting a different outcome. It is time to end the insanity and develop a model than can and will work.

  • Sarahdeo

    One quick thing they may be able to do to help is changing the requirement for court attendance. Right now case workers spend hours at court per case waiting needlessly. I just got back from a case where the worker was there from 1030(ish) to 1pm and we never even went in front of a judge. If we hadn’t gotten another date, the worker would have had to come back at 2 and may not have left until 3/4pm to go back to the office. If they were on call and/or had a designated worker, it would free them up to catch up on their work.

    • Lawrence

      I am going to send your reply to my congressman. It’s a good idea but needs action.

  • FrancisMcManus

    We fund DCF to protect children and give them and their families support. In this case, DCF failed when it had a chance to protect the boy. DCF did not harm the boy, rather it failed to intervene in a way that improved his life. I hope that we can learn from our mistakes so the the money we spend delivers better results.

  • Sus@n

    Dear God these people have more excuses for not doing their jobs- even though people’s lives hang in the balance. Do your freaking JOB or QUIT

    • rich4321

      Do you know that “these people” you referred to are the people who over worked and under paid? Most social workers do what they do is because they have something rare in our society – it’s called compassion!

      • Sus@n

        These people have a job to do, and in this case they failed miserably. Compassion would mean that they would have followed up on this case and made sure the child was safe.

        Everyone claims to be underpaid and overworked. Enough excuses!! A child is most likely dead – but oh dear they are overworked. Spare me the talk.

  • rich4321

    In my previous comment, what I was saying is the government need to better educate the will-be parents, the people have no mean to raise children in a proper home for whatever reason, simply shouldn’t have children, being unfit parents is just simply a totally irresponsible act, it’s unfair to the children, unfair to the society.

    I am sure the social workers are doing their best. But with so many cases, the social workers and the state can only do so much.

  • Kekersen

    I’m afraid this story will continue to repeat itself until we commit to making some very serious changes in our society; I’m talking ample access to trauma-informed psychotherapy and family therapy that accounts for intergenerational trauma, a commitment to combating racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and homophobia, and fair living wages and reasonable workplace demands. Are each of the adults in this child’s life culpable? Absolutely, 100% they are. Would the same thing have happened if each of these adults were working in a more supportive societal infrastructure? Maybe… but it’s far less likely. Many parents who abuse and neglect their children were abused and neglected as children, and an overwhelming population within this group suffer from poverty. With health insurance companies for low-income people constantly restricting the services they’ll reimburse clinicians for performing while accrediting agencies increase documentation expectations, many therapists and other social service workers leave the agencies that provide services to low-income clients after their 2 years of mandatory supervision in search of a career that won’t force them to eat rice and beans for the rest of their lives, leaving low-income families with high turnover and consistently less seasoned professionals (not to knock interns and new-to-the-field providers). Furthermore, DCF workers are consistently overworked, underpaid, and flooded with trauma that their jobs leave little room for them to process and/or discharge from their own systems. It’s not the taxpayers’ fault, either – many of the taxpayers in this state are barely scraping by and keeping their own families from meeting a similar fate of poverty and the trauma that comes along with it. It’s really time for a re-thinking of who is responsible for the overarching conditions that lead to child abuse and neglect – poverty, perpetrated by people who take plenty more than they need; poor infrastructure, perpetrated by overworked and underpaid policymakers; and intergenerational trauma, sustained by the insurance company gatekeepers that are invested in keeping people ill. This poor kid – I really hope they find him, get him a good therapist and a GREAT DCF worker (there are many truly amazing DCF workers in Central MA who I am blessed to work with), and commit to making some serious changes.

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