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Yesterday, Massachusetts Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche announced the results of an internal investigation into the mishandling of the case of Jeremiah Oliver, a five-year-old boy from Fitchburg who went missing in September--but whose disappearance wasn't reported for three months.  The investigation not only revealed that this tragedy was entirely preventable, but also suggested evidence of systemic dysfunction.

The internal DCF review of the Oliver case revealed that the social workers assigned to work with Jeremiah's family, including his mother and two siblings, failed to make the required monthly home visits to ensure the well-being of the children. Supervisors, including the area program manager, knew the home visits were not occurring, but failed to take action to address the missed visits.

Roche said the Department of Children and Families first became involved with the Oliver family in September 2011, and the family prospered under the supervision of DCF officials and a caseworker from the department's Worcester office. When the family moved to Fitchburg in January 2013, the case was transferred to the North Central Area office and a new social worker was assigned to the case.

Roche on Monday said it was "very clear the family was in trouble" in June following three reports of domestic violence in the home and a threat of homelessness that was never followed up on by the social worker or supervisors in the office. The report indicates that in June the youngest child's pre-school called the social worker to express concern that the child was coming to school hungry and that the mother was considering moving to Florida.

The social worker did not conduct home visits with the Oliver family in June or July. The only home visits took place in February and April. The last contact anyone from DCF had with Jeremiah Oliver came in May when an investigator met with the mother and youngest child -- Jeremiah -- to follow up on a report of abuse of the oldest child. The investigator reported that Jeremiah was "precocious, talkative and articulate."

According to Roche, the social worker received an avalanche of calls reporting concern about Jeremiah's living conditions, but nothing was done.  Her supervisor also made false reports stating that the family was doing well--claims that would have easily been debunked had anyone visited the home.  She also knew that the social worker hadn't followed up on the reports of domestic violence, but failed to take any corrective measures.  Both the social worker and the supervisor have been fired, and the area program manager joined them on the unemployment line yesterday.  Meanwhile, police fear Jeremiah may be dead.

For those who don't know, Jeremiah's relatives haven't seen him since September 14.  His mother, Elsa, said that he moved to Florida, but no one followed up on it.  The truth didn't come out until December 2, when Elsa's older sister said that her mom's live-in boyfriend, Antonio Sierra, had been abusing her.  When authorities came to remove her and her siblings from the house, Jeremiah was nowhere to be found.  Elsa has been in custody since December 16, when she missed a 72-hour deadline from a juvenile judge to produce Jeremiah or tell where he was.  Sierra was arrested a few days later.  Both are facing charges related to Jeremiah's abuse.  Sierra is being held without bail; prosecutors have evidence he is a member of the Latin Kings street gang.  While Elsa was granted bail, she still won't be released even if she makes it until she undergoes a mental evaluation and clears the contempt charge from juvenile court.  However, she shows signs of being badly abused--and apparently it's so severe her own lawyer can't have a meaningful conversation with her.

One thing troubles me about this affair, though.  DCF initiated a special review of all cases involving kids between 3-6 years old in September.  How in the world did someone not notice then that all was not as it seemed with the Olivers?  To my mind, this is evidence of systemic failure.  The children's advocate is conducting a separate probe, though--hopefully more will come out of this.

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