Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

Opinion

January 16, 2014

When trouble strikes, Patrick evades and deflects

An independent review of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is needed and welcome.

But it is troubling that, in the lead-up to the announcement of the investigation, Gov. Deval Patrick spent more time defending the malfunctioning agency than demanding answers for the disappearance of a 5-year-old boy.

“I think it’s important not to jump to conclusions,” Patrick, speaking of the social workers in the agency, told reporters. “They have an enormously difficult job. They perform miracles every day, hundreds and hundreds of miracles that don’t get the attention of all of you here, but do earn, I believe, the respect of the public, certainly of mine.”

But something went terribly wrong at the DCF in the case of young Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg, whose family had been under agency supervision. The 5-year-old is missing and presumed dead. Extended family members say they have not seen the boy since September yet police have only recently been informed that he is missing. The boy’s mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., have been arrested and have pleaded not guilty to child endangerment, abuse and other charges.

The DCF last had contact with the boy in May 2013.

An internal investigation found that the social worker assigned to the case failed to make routine monthly visits or follow up on several reports of abuse and that a supervisor covered up those failings.

The social worker, the supervisor and an area manager were fired. A fourth employee was suspended.

The governor and the agency have been pushing the notion that this was an isolated failing, rather than a systemic problem at DCF.

But state Sen. Michael Barrett, D-Lexington, was having none of it. Barrett is co-chairman of the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee.

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