Outside review: Child welfare agency not responsible for Fitchburg boy’s death
BOSTON (AP) -- Massachusetts’ children welfare agency should not be held responsible for the death of a 5-year-old boy whose family was under state supervision but officials did not do enough to protect the boy, according to an outside review released Wednesday.
The report from Child Welfare League of America into the Department of Children and Families following the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver also raised a number of significant concerns about the agency, including staffing problems and inconsistent handling of cases due to out-of-date policies.
Jeremiah’s body was discovered along a highway last month. Relatives said the Fitchburg boy hadn’t been seen since September but police weren’t told he was missing until December.
The league concluded that while there is significant evidence some DCF staff didn’t do their jobs, "there is not evidence that DCF’s actions and failures caused Jeremiah’s death or that DCF could have prevented the tragic outcome."
"We’re not saying the department is off the hook, what we are saying is there is not enough evidence that the department is on the hook," said CWLA official Linda Spears. She said the department failed Jeremiah and his family.
The boy’s mother and her boyfriend have been charged with kidnapping and assault and have pleaded not guilty. Three DCF employees were fired and a fourth disciplined after a state investigation revealed missed social worker visits and other failed opportunities to engage with the family.
In its report, the league said DCF is understaffed and its policies and protocols largely out-of-date resulting in inconsistent handling of cases across regional offices. The report also said DCF is serving more children than at any time in the past two decades and that current caseload outstrips the capacity of the workforce.
Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz said the administration has set a goal of 15 cases per social worker. The current ratio is just under 20 cases per worker. Polanowicz said an additional 200 workers have been hired since January, but with retirements and other staff reductions the net gain has been about 90 social workers.
The league made several recommendations including giving social workers in the field access to smartphones. Polanowicz said the state is providing 2,000 computer tablets to social workers to let them check their email and access other online information.
Gov Deval Patrick has asked for an additional $9.2 million to hire more DCF workers and improve technology in his state budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1. House and Senate versions of the budget have added to that number. A final budget is still being hammered out.
Polanowicz said the report cost the state $150,000.
Former Commissioner Olga Roche resigned under pressure from lawmakers last month after the deaths of two other children who were being monitored by state child welfare officials.
Spears said the challenges facing the agency are more endemic than a single individual.
Polanowicz said a search is continuing to replace Roche and that interim DCF Commissioner Erin Deveney is included in that search.
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