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The number of children being removed from their homes by the state's child welfare agency has jumped dramatically since a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose family was being monitored by the state went missing, but that doesn't mean the agency is doing a better job, child advocates said.
From December through May, the Department of Children and Families filed nearly 2,000 court petitions to gain custody of children they determined to be at risk of abuse or neglect, a 52 percent increase from the previous year, according to court statistics. Last month, the agency filed 365 such petitions, a 70 percent jump from May 2013.
The move is an overreaction that will needlessly send more children into foster care, child advocates said.
"It's symptomatic of an agency that is continuing to struggle," Marylou Sudders, associate professor at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, told The Boston Globe. "You have line workers who, if there is any question, are going to default to the side of filing" for custody.
The Fitchburg boy, Jeremiah Oliver, was reported missing in December after his family had not seen him in several months. His body was found in April. His mother and her boyfriend have been charged in connection with his disappearance, but no one has been charged with his death. Three agency workers were fired and the commissioner eventually stepped down.
Peter MacKinnon, president of the union that represents the state's child welfare workers, said there is an "an atmosphere of extreme fear" in the agency and "No one wants to have the next Jeremiah Oliver on their caseload."
The agency in a statement said periods of "hypervigilance" typically follow high-profile cases.
"When an allegation of abuse or neglect comes to the department's attention, we engage in a thoughtful and deliberative process to ensure a course of action that is in the best interest of the child," the statement said.