Concerned that the case of a missing 5 year-old boy from Fitchburg was only a symptom of more widespread problems, Senate President Pro Tempore Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge, wants a thorough, independent review of the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF).
“Following the tragic news that a child from Fitchburg, for whom DCF is responsible, was missing and feared dead, I received a detailed letter of concern about other problems with the agency from the Northbridge Superintendent of Schools,” Sen. Moore explained. “The issues that Dr. Spitulnik detailed in that letter raised serious concerns beyond the lack of monitoring of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver,” Moore added.
According to news reports, Jeremiah Oliver has not been seen since September. Authorities were alerted to his disappearance on December 2nd when his 7-year-old sister told counselors at Reingold Elementary School in Fitchburg that she was being abused by her mother’s boyfriend, and that she had not seen Jeremiah in some time. The boy’s disappearance has shaken the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, which has fired three employees – the direct care social worker and two supervisors – for failing to meet their professional responsibility to the Oliver family.
The letter from Northbridge School Superintendent Dr. Nancy Spitulnik, which prompted Moore’s call for further investigation of the embattled agency, was sent to DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, and a copy forwarded to Sen. Moore and Rep. George Peterson, R-Grafton.
Superintendent Spitulnik wrote on December 20, 2013, “I am aware of many of the cases involving the South Central DCF Office in Whitinsville,” adding that she was also “aware of concerns that the principals [of the Northbridge schools] have with the lack of response or inappropriate responses of both workers and supervisors when dealing with some of our cases.”
Sen. Moore stated that he had shared Dr. Spitulnik’s letter with Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, who told Moore she was outraged that such failings had, apparently, occurred in the agency. The Senate President, at Moore’s urging, has written to the Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz, DCF Commissioner Roche, and the Governor asking for a full investigation of Spitulnik’s concerns. The Senate Post Audit Committee also plans to launch an investigation.
Moore said that Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, to whom he had also sent Spitulnik’s letter, told him during Thursday’s opening of the second half of the current legislative session, that she has added the Northbridge concerns to the House of Representatives’ investigation into the Fitchburg case.
Moore said he would keep pushing for a complete discovery of the facts in these cases and whatever reforms would be needed to “keep our kids safe.” Sen. Moore also noted that if high caseloads were part of the problem, it should be addressed through the budget, adding that some of the concerns seemed to go beyond over-burdened caseworkers and failure of supervisors to treat school reports appropriately.
The following is an excerpt of the letter from Northbridge Superintendent Nancy Spitulnik:
Commissioner Olga Roche
Department of Children and Families
600 Washington Street
Boston, MA 02111
As the Superintendent of Schools in Northbridge, I work closely with the school principals to ensure the safety and security of all our students and families. As part of this collaboration, I am aware of many of the cases involving the South Central DCF office in Whitinsville (a section of Northbridge). I am also aware of the concerns that the principals have with the lack of response or inappropriate responses of both workers and supervisors when dealing with some of our cases.
It was therefore disturbing to read an article in the Worcester Telegram on December 19th concerning the missing 5-year-old boy from Fitchburg. Jason Stephany, spokesperson for the DCF caseworkers union, discussed the high caseloads of workers, who should have no more than 15 cases, as a cause for concern in the Fitchburg situation. Mr. Stephany is then quoted as saying, “The South Central office in Whitinsville is the only other in the state to rank higher.”
This statement about the high caseloads of workers in the Whitinsville DCF office is extremely concerning to me, and to my professional staff. We have been trying to work with our DCF office to ensure a timely, appropriate response to the 51A’s that we file. If it has been known that the caseloads in this office are too high, I’m appalled that no actions have been taken to correct this situation in order to ensure the safety and well-being of our students before a similar tragedy occurs here.
My staff and I would be happy to meet with you or a representative from your office to give you more specific information about our concerns so this problem can be addressed. I look forward to hearing from you.
Dr. Nancy Spitulnik, Superintendent