By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- For more than four hours Thursday, members of a House panel sought answers about why the state lost track of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, and assurances from the Department of Children and Families that such failures will not occur again.

A DCF social worker, supervisor and an area manager were fired late last year after the Fitchburg boy's sister went to school officials and authorities learned he had not been seen since September and the assigned caseworker had not checked in on him since May.

"I am struck by the fact that somehow this little boy didn't slip through the cracks at one level. [He] slipped through the cracks on three separate levels," House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight Chairman David Linsky told DCF Commissioner Olga Roche during a joint panel with the House members of the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.

Roche said the governor's budget recommendation of a $9.2 million increase would allow for staffing increases, meaning one social worker would have no more than 15 cases at a time, and technology improvements to allow for more up-to-the-minute reports.

"We're going to do whatever we need to do with the Legislature. But you can pour in millions of dollars and if there is a total breakdown in the supervision and the work in an area office - like apparently there was in Fitchburg at this time - no amount of money is going to help until there is a directive coming from the secretary or the commissioner or maybe the governor that people just have to do their jobs and that kids' lives are at stake," Linsky said.

"There's zero tolerance for [them] not doing their job," Roche said. Asked whether there had been a zero tolerance before, Roche said, "There is a zero tolerance for a worker not to fulfill their duties. There is a zero tolerance for a supervisor not to fulfill their duties, and also zero tolerance for a manager not to follow their direct responsibility of oversight of cases. There was always a zero tolerance and will continue to be a zero tolerance because our children matter."

Jason Stephany, a spokesman for SEIU Local 509, which represented the fired social worker, said the union believes in "accountability," and said many of the social workers in the Leominster office were overburdened and had filed grievances.

"The social worker in question had raised red flags," Stephany told the News Service. He said, "It's clear that it went unnoticed."

Asked if he believes the firing was justified, Stephany said the union is looking for more details. Stephany said the contract requires social workers to have no more than 18 cases, and said in 2013 the state agreed to bring caseloads down to 15 - which is the target of Patrick's budget.

Many caseworkers continue to have caseloads over 18, according to a chart supplied by SEIU, which shows top caseloads in the 20s and even as high as 40 in the south central office. Stephany said one case typically has multiple children, parents, lawyers and other individuals associated with it.

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute attorney Susan Elsen said DCF's funding was $934.7 million in fiscal year 2009, and Patrick's proposed increase would bring the funding up to $819 million, while level-funding the family-support line item. Those funding cuts occurred through the so-called 9C funding cuts made unilaterally by the governor and through the budgetary process, Elsen said.

Elsen also told the News Service there is a "sub story" where social workers might be opting in favor of removing children from their homes at a greater rate now, saying a Worcester office had seen 30 care protection cases filed in one week, up from the average of 4 to 6 cases weekly. She said the majority of cases are neglect, not abuse, where family strengthening is helpful. 

Roche said that the Oliver family had gone through an investigatory process, which is reserved for the more serious cases. The case was transferred from one area to the Fitchburg office.

The Office of the Child Advocate reported Thursday that a child welfare agency in another state had a history with the Oliver family and did not respond to DCF requests for information when they moved to Massachusetts. Officials said the family was previously "involved" in Connecticut where there was a "gap" in the case's transfer.

Sen. Cynthia Stone-Creem, a Newton Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, has sought information on the matter and could possibly conduct her own hearings on the matter.

Roche, who was granted the full-time job of commissioner in October, steered her testimony towards the future, and said she had "stressed" the importance of regular visits by social workers.

Rep. Sheila Harrington, a Groton Republican, asked Roche about an 82.5 percent compliance rate with the requirement to complete and document home visits.

"We have 1,600 adolescents of age, who are between the ages of 18 and 22, and not always we are able to keep up," Roche said, noting that an emergency might crop up, a worker might be delayed in logging a visit, or a visit could take place outside of the home.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, said the needs are different in rural areas where social workers have farther drives between cases and said she hoped that the lessons of the Oliver case are not forgotten.

"In a couple more years, I hate to say this, there's going to be another high-profile case, and that's when we're going to pay attention again," Farley-Bouvier said.

Roche said DCF requires social workers to have a bachelor's degree and supervisors need a master's degree. In 2001, DCF made an agreement requiring workers to be licensed in order to receive promotions, and she said state law does not allow the department to require workers to be licensed. The department helps train workers toward a license, Roche said.

Rep. Kay Khan, who co-chairs the Children and Families Committee, asked why the school did not contact the family about the missing boy. DCF General Counsel Virginia Peel said there are certain facts DCF agreed not to discuss in public.

Rachel Neff, a spokeswoman for the Office of Education, said the Head Start center the 5-year-old attended had been alerted that he was no longer enrolled in the program.

"It's a workforce issue, I think, and also an oversight issue," Rep. Stephen DiNatale, a Fitchburg Democrat told the News Service ahead of the hearing.

Rep. Tom Stanley, a Waltham Democrat, said more oversight and audits could be performed to ensure compliance, and suggested the state auditor might want to look into the issue.