In the days following the discovery of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver’s body, Massachusetts Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche announced Tuesday her immediate resignation.
Oliver, who lived in Fitchburg, disappeared in September while under DCF care, but officials did not discover the child was missing until December. Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, were indicted in March on charges of child abuse.
Three state employees, including the social worker and supervisor responsible for checking on Oliver beginning in September 2011, were fired due to ignoring reports of abuse.
The addition of two other child deaths this month, believed to be caused by a lack of department supervision, have placed DCF in the crossfire. Several people have looked down on Roche in recent months for pointing fingers at respective members of the department who are to blame for the boy’s disappearance.
Massachusetts Rep. Robert DeLeo said in a Tuesday statement installing new leadership in DCF is only the first step to solving these problems.
“DCF is an agency in crisis; and we must immediately undertake the difficult, but crucial, task of creating an effective structure of protection and care for our most vulnerable children,” he said in the statement. “The House’s ongoing efforts to heighten oversight, provide resources to lower caseload ratios and implement significant IT improvements at DCF are already proceeding.”
DeLeo spoke to reporters at an open appearance Monday and said the deaths of children due to negligence on the part of a state department is unacceptable, and Roche’s resignation is the first step toward preventing these situations from ever repeating themselves.
“Quite frankly, I am angered to see this continuing to happen,” he said. “It shows a complete lack of management on behalf of DCF, and we have to take strong action. We can’t wait until the end of the year. We can’t wait for a new governor who may bring in a new commissioner. We have to take action now.”
Erin Deveney, who has been serving as the DCF deputy commissioner of operations for less than month, will be serving as the interim commissioner, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced at a press conference Tuesday.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker oversaw DCF while serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the administration of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. In a statement released Tuesday, Baker said he was pleased to see Patrick accept Roche’s resignation and take the first step to fixing the department’s systematic failures.
“The children and families impacted by DCF deserve accountability and swift reassurance that the state is taking the right steps to fix this serious problem,” he said.
Several residents said Roche’s resignation will allow the department to refocus their goals and prevent future child neglect and death.
Tammy Mak, 25, of Brighton, said Roche’s resignation should not be the state’s way to find someone to blame. Instead, the public should choose a new leader and begin moving the department in the right direction.
“The public sees her as a leader, but as an individual, she has the right to choose to resign and for them to choose a different leader,” she said. “They should look for not someone to blame, but at the problem itself. I don’t like to hear about children dying, but we have to look at the issues contributing to this.”
Patrick Armstrong, 25, of Allston, said this situation is not black and white, and for that reason, there is no evidence to prove that Roche’s resignation was the optimal solution for the department.
“Three instances may not mean any foul play has occurred or that [the children’s deaths] are a pattern,” he said. “In this situation, we have to look at the leadership, but I don’t know if that means she is required to resign.”
Bryn Schockett, 29, of Allston, said Roche’s decision to resign reflects her ability to understand that the deaths of the children may not be directly her fault, but her lack of supervision over the department as a whole may have lead to the various situations.
“When things fail in the department as a whole and drastic situations happen, it’s the person in leadership’s responsibility to sink or swim with the ship,” she said. “As a human being, she has to accept her resignation even if everything was not entirely her fault. She didn’t oversee the department as well as she could have.”