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.
“The situation cries out for truth-telling, self-examination and possibly self-criticism. It’s becoming harder to suppose we’re dealing with just a few bad apples rather than a systemic problem,” Barrett said in a statement reported by the State House News Service. “During hard times, have all the key decision-makers protected DCF’s capacity to do its job?”
Patrick has been under mounting pressure for an independent investigation of the DCF and last week he announced that a review will be conducted by the Child Welfare League of America, an organization that advocates for children nationwide.
But Patrick’s instincts were also on display as he repeatedly defended the agency, even as the boy remains missing.
“You know, this is not a job for amateurs, right. There are procedures that are in common with, that do or don’t reflect best practices around the country. There are judgment calls that social workers have to make every day, and most of them widely successful and not reported on, that happen daily,” Patrick told a group of reporters, as the news service reported. “But when something goes wrong, particularly in the life of a child it is deeply concerning to me and to the general public. And so what we’ve been talking about is whether there isn’t some group or agency that is knowledgeable and has some real gravitas and experience in this area that might help us bring a fresh set of eyes. That is what we are trying to sort out.”
Patrick’s statements and the time he took to call for an independent investigation are telling. They reveal a governor whose instincts are, when trouble strikes, to rally around the bureaucracy and fend off tough questions, rather than demand the answers that will hold public servants accountable and possibly avert future tragedies.