A missing 5-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl’s forced estrangement from her biological family have put the spotlight on Massachusetts’ troubled Department of Children and Families.
The two cases are just the latest in a series of disturbing events involving children entrusted to the department over the last decade or more. But now, lawmakers are vowing to hold social workers and the administrators who manage them, accountable. A report released last July found 95 children died while in the department’s care between 2001 and 2010, and a top-to-bottom state audit is now under way.
"If a social worker doesn't do his or her job, they need to be held responsible, but it goes just beyond the lying social workers,” said Democratic state Rep. David Linsky. “If supervisors don't do their job, they need to be held responsible. If middle management doesn't do their job, they need to be held responsible, and all the way up the chain of authority here."
The two latest cases to make headlines involve 15-year-old Justina Pelletier, who was put in foster care even though her parents say all they did was follow doctor’s orders, and Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old boy the department inexplicably lost track of.
“Right now we don't know what happened to Jeremiah Oliver,” Linsky said. “We don't know if he is dead or alive."
Gov. Deval Patrick noted that the social worker responsible for monitoring Jeremiah’s safety has been fired, as well as her immediate supervisor and a program manager. According to Patrick, the social worker had failed to conduct required visits, and her supervisor made false entries in the case file indicating that the visits had, in fact, been made.
Patrick hopes for more answers from an independent review he commissioned by the Child Welfare League of America. Its findings are due in the coming weeks. In the meantime, he has called for increased funding to the DCF in 2015, money the DCF states it will use to enhance screening and investigations.
"I think we have a great opportunity, ironically, by this terrible tragedy to rethink and to reinvigorate the department and I want to assure the public that that is what we intend to do," Patrick said.
One lawmaker questioned whether simply increasing funding is enough to reform the agency charged with protecting the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
"You have to ask yourself, is a shortage of resources responsible for the failure to communicate adequately, the failure to be accurate in reporting, falsifying documents, lying about specific situations?" Republican state Sen. Bruce Tarr asked.
Jeremiah Oliver was first reported missing by his 7-year old sister, who told school officials that her mother’s boyfriend was abusing her and that she had not seen her little brother for months. The social worker handling Jeremiah’s case failed to complete routine home visits, last checking in on the child in May 2013. His mother, Elsa Oliver, is being charged with several counts, including reckless endangerment of a child, and is awaiting trial.
Justina, who lives in Connecticut, was taken into custody by the DCF after her parents disagreed with a diagnosis and treatment plan suggested by doctors at the Boston Children’s Hospital. Her primary care doctor had diagnosed her with Mitochondrial Disease, a condition that affects cells throughout the body. But when the doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital told authorities her condition was partly psychologically induced, DCF took custody of the girl.
The agency has been under fire for several years. In 2010, 23-month-old Kaydn Hancock was beaten to death by his mother, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is serving time. She had broken the boy’s arm just weeks before the fatal beating, and although DCF removed Kaydn from the home initially, he was returned less than a week later.
"I was calling them, begging, pleading, crying, just anything because I was desperate for help,” Kaydn's maternal great-aunt, Andrea Rizzitano, told Fox News. “Not only did his mother rob him of his life, but DCF robbed him of his life because they put him back into a situation that he was in imminent danger."
A spokesperson for the DCF told Fox News in an email that "the most recent child fatality report showed a decline in child fatalities."