Is the Massachusetts DCF Failing Children?

FITCHBURG, Mass.—It was only when 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver’s older sister told her elementary school counselor that she had not seen her brother for many months that authorities realized the boy had gone missing. In July 2013, the boy’s day care provider had alerted his social worker to the fact that his mother had withdrawn the boy from their care, claiming he was going to live in Florida with his grandmother. The boy’s social worker allegedly made no attempt to verify this claim and continued to not make the required monthly in-person visits with the boy. It has now been many months since Jeremiah was last seen. High-profile media coverage has followed the arrest of the boy’s mother, Elsa Oliver, and her recent assessment as mentally competent to stand trial for charges of abuse and failing to protect her son. Her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, is being held without bail, and the case is being treated as a possible homicide. Their next hearing is February 21.

The Massachusetts Department for Children and Families (DCF) became involved with the case in the fall of 2011 after the agency received a report of neglect. Following the boy’s disappearance, the social worker, the social worker’s supervisor and the area manager have been fired from the DCF for “gross disregard of duty.” Martha Coakley, Democratic candidate for governor, has supported Governor Patrick’s call for an independent review, but dissenting voices are demanding a more systematic evaluation of the DCF, arguing that Jeremiah’s case is indicative of systemic problems across the state department. Republican candidate for governor, Charlie Baker, has called for the resignation of the DCF Commissioner, Olga Roche.

Both the DCF and Governor Deval Patrick claimed this case is a “unique circumstance” due to staff members’ failure to follow policies and procedures. But recent evidence uncovered by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) suggests the case of Jeremiah Oliver might only be the tip of a very large iceberg. In 2013, NECIR reporter Jenifer McKim claimed that Massachusetts social workers failed to make nearly one in five of their required monthly home visits. The case of Jeremiah Oliver, she argues, is far from unique and, while Jeremiah’s case has been extensively covered by mainstream media, the NECIR have uncovered evidence showing that children under the watch of the DCF ‘actually die with alarming regularity.’

There is no accurate state-by-state comparison of deaths among children receiving social services, and therefore it is not possible to compare Massachusetts with other states. But NECIR’s analysis of state statistics shows that more than 95 Massachusetts children whose cases were overseen by state social workers have died directly or indirectly because of abuse or neglect between 2001 and 2011. The majority of these children die anonymously within their first year. Unlike the case of Jeremiah Oliver, there tends to be no media coverage of the majority of these children, and their names do not become widely known. Laurie Myers, founder of Community Voices, a child protection and victim advocacy organization in Chelmsford, MA, said the sheer number of child fatalities in Massachusetts points to a failing system.

Within the federal courts, Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group, has accused Massachusetts of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of children in the state’s foster-care system by placing them in unstable and sometimes dangerous situations. In dismissing their case, the federal judge commented that ‘the state defendants today avoid the litigation but… the stage is set for future action.’ Children’s Rights are currently preparing an appeal.

The NECIR’s report highlights a number of cases and concludes that the broader political context is also pertinent to understanding these children’s deaths. Quoting Jetta Bernier, executive director of the Boston-based advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children, the NECIR report concludes: “During recent public hearings, legislators were quick to make blustering criticisms of DCF… but where was all this indignation when decisions were made to reduce its budget and cripple it with 200 less social workers? Everyone has to take responsibility here.’”



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