BOSTON – Gov. Deval Patrick said Wednesday he's trying to "keep my own rage in check" as he presses the commissioner of his child protection agency about the case of a 5-year-old boy who has been missing for months and is feared dead.
Patrick said he met with Department of Children & Families Commissioner Olga Roche and asked her "some very specific questions" following the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver and expects to hear back from her within 10 days. He said he supports Roche's decision to fire a caseworker and a supervisor assigned to Jeremiah and his family in Fitchburg, 45 miles northwest of Boston.
"I'm confident that we know enough to have taken that action, but the question is are there other similar cases and is there someone else further up the chain who should have caught this and didn't," Patrick said.
The governor, who just returned from a trade mission to Asia, called the case "devastating" and said the first order of business is to find Jeremiah. Investigators say the boy was last seen by relatives in September but police learned only recently that he was missing and are treating the case as a possible homicide.
Patrick, a Democrat, said he doesn't believe the case represents a "system-wide breakdown."
"There are hundreds of triumphs every day in the lives of children thanks to the people who work at DCF," he said.
House Republican leader Brad Jones said in a statement Wednesday that Patrick and the DCF should "produce an immediate plan of action" to fix any problems within the agency.
Patrick said there are three investigations into the case: the criminal investigation, Roche's review and an investigation by the state Office of the Child Advocate, whose stated mission is to ensure every child involved with state agencies is protected from harm and receives quality services.
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, and a judge ordered her to undergo a mental competency evaluation.
Oliver's boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery on a child and pleaded not guilty. He's being held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing.
Oliver's two other children have been placed in the custody of the DCF.
In June, the social worker received a message from Jeremiah's day care indicating his mother had said it was his last day and he'd be leaving for Florida to live with his grandmother, officials said. But the social worker didn't confirm the information or conduct required checks, they said.
Roche said Tuesday the case "represents a serious failure on the part of the social worker and supervisor assigned to the family." She said the social worker failed to conduct required in-person, monthly checks on the family and the supervisor failed to enforce that policy.
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.