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The state Department of Children & Families is disputing a union allegation that a high caseload prevented a social worker from conducting monthly visits with a now-missing 5-year-old boy in Fitchburg.
Investigators say the boy, Jeremiah Oliver, was last seen by relatives in September but police only learned recently that he was missing. The boy's mother and her boyfriend face charges.
A prosecutor is treating the boy's disappearance as a possible homicide.
DCF fired the social worker and the worker's supervisor Tuesday in connection with the case.
SEIU Local 509, which represents DCF social workers, said Wednesday that those workers routinely handle more than 20 cases each.
Child advocacy groups say the case number should be no higher than 15.
"The problem has actually gotten worse, not better over the past year," union spokesman Jason Stephany told WBUR. "And the office in question, the north central office in Leominster, has amongst the highest caseloads per case worker in the state."
In a statement, DCF said the fired social worker did not complete basic duties and called the worker's lack of follow-up with the family a "serious failure."
The department added that it will continue working to ensure that caseloads are manageable.
State officials have promised a full investigation into the case. House Minority Leader Brad Jones has called for a hearing to examine the operations of the under-fire department.
With reporting by WBUR's Jack Lepiarz and The Associated Press
This program aired on December 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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