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Mass. governor: Responsibility in case of missing boy, 5, could go higher up at family agency

Responsibility in the case of a 5-year-old boy who has been missing for months and is feared dead could go beyond a fired social worker and her supervisor, Gov. Deval Patrick suggested on Friday.

The family of Jeremiah Oliver received great care from a different social worker at the state Department of Children & Families until the end of last year, Patrick said. The family's care went downhill after the case was transferred to another office, he said on WGBH-FM radio.

He said no case worker is too overworked to raise alarm bells if he or she believes a family is in trouble. Instead, he said, a representation was made that the family was fine and in a new furnished apartment even though no one had one gone to see it.

"Being busy doesn't explain that," Patrick said.

The family, which lived in Fitchburg, 45 miles northwest of Boston, had been involved with the department for a long time, he said.

"The social work provided to the family up until the end of last year was exemplary," he said. "It was in a different office, a different social worker, a different team, really terrific. The problem ... seems to be about the social worker who was fired from the office to which it was transferred and her supervisor."

Investigators say Jeremiah last was seen by relatives in September but police learned only recently that he was missing and are treating the case as a possible homicide.

Jeremiah's mother, Elsa Oliver, has been charged with reckless endangerment of a child and with being an accessory after the fact. A not guilty plea was entered on her behalf.

Oliver's boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery on a child. He has pleaded not guilty.

Patrick, a Democrat, said he's asked Department of Children & Families Commissioner Olga Roche to look into whether the responsibility goes beyond the fired social worker and supervisor.

"I have some reason to believe it does," he said.

A union representing social workers has criticized the firings, saying Roche is using the workers as scapegoats to deflect attention from problems caused by soaring caseloads.

Patrick said the caseload question is a separate issue.

"I'm talking about saying to somebody, 'We've got a problem here, and I can't get to it because I'm too busy,'" he said. "That didn't happen."

Patrick said he's been briefed on the conditions of Jeremiah's brother and sister, who are under state care. He called their experiences "a pretty grisly story."

Three investigations are underway: the criminal investigation, Roche's review and an investigation by the state Office of the Child Advocate.

The Senate Republican Caucus on Friday called for an independent investigation by Auditor Suzanne Bump and Inspector General Glenn Cunha into the actions of the Department of Children & Families. Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo has asked the chairs of two legislative committees to look into the agency's handling of the case.