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Worker caseloads are stunningly high at a Massachusetts Department of Children and Families office criticized for how it handled a case involving a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who has been missing since September, according to child welfare advocates.
The Boston Herald reports that one worker at the Leominster office oversaw 57 children, nearly half of whom were in foster care. Six other workers were overseeing 40 or more children apiece. Sixty workers have filed grievances saying their caseloads exceeded the state-mandated limit of 18, according to labor union officials.
"That seems inconceivable to me," said Maria Mossaides, executive director of Cambridge Family and Children's Service and chair of the Children's League of Massachusetts.
The Leominster office is the one that served the family of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg, who has been missing since September and is feared dead. Three DCF workers were fired and a fourth disciplined in connection with the agency's failures in handling the family's case.
DCF Commissioner Olga Roche 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 last month. They are treating the case as a possible homicide.
The boy's mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., were arrested in connection with the alleged abuse of Oliver's two other children. Oliver and Sierra have pleaded not guilty to child endangerment, abuse and other charges. Searchers have looked for the boy, to no avail.
Mossaides and other advocates are placing some blame on DCF budget cuts and low staffing levels.
Gov. Deval Patrick said last month that he didn't believe the case represented a "system-wide breakdown."
"There are hundreds of triumphs every day in the lives of children thanks to the people who work at DCF," he said.