Massachusetts report faults agency’s handling of ‘Baby Doe’ case

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Baby Bella just 1 of 110 children to slip through cracks in protective services.

The state Department of Children and Families failed to properly investigate two previous warnings that Bella Bond was being neglected and should not have closed her case in 2013, nearly two years before the girl’s body was found on Deer Island, according to a sharply critical report released Wednesday. The lack of scrutiny given to the case was striking because the girl’s mother, Rachelle Bond, had a long history of arrests, had been in prison at least 12 times, had struggled with drug addiction, and had two previous children taken away by DCF, said the report by the Office of the Child Advocate. In perhaps the most glaring finding, the report said that the evaluation that led the department to close the case in September 2013 “contained cut-and-pasted information” from years-old reports on Rachelle Bond, including information from 2006, six years before Bella was born.

In fact, a Herald review of the 20-question risk assessment tool that DCF workers currently use for investigations indicates social workers should have flagged Bella as facing a “high level” risk of future maltreatment in her home during the 2013 investigation. Rachelle Bond should have earned the high-risk designation because she had at least three prior DCF investigations, a history of mental health and drug problems and was caring for a child under age 2 — among other red flags, according to the agency’s checklist.

In September, authorities finally learned her name after her mother allegedly told a friend that her boyfriend, Michael McCarthy, had killed her daughter. While she made recommendations to strengthen the agency, she pointedly avoided harsh condemnations of DCF, saying the department is taking steps to improve its oversight of abused and neglected children. “It’s impossible for anyone to say that continued involvement with the department would have prevented the tragedy in this case,” she told reporters.

The state’s records on child fatality data is faulty and it doesn’t appear that the state agency has learned from past mistakes, the NECIR investigation revealed. “It’s a very dysfunctional system. It is a now familiar case of too little information sharing among state agencies, and Rachelle Bond’s support network collapsed. “The Department is grateful to the OCA for its thorough review of this tragic case,” Grossman said. “Many of the issues raised in the report are already being addressed by the Baker administration’s aggressive systemic reform effort, including the need for clear and consistent policies and increased management oversight.

Not only is DCF failing, but the other eye of the state, the child fatality review teams, are largely nonfunctional,” Robert Sege, vice president at the Boston-based nonprofit Health Resources in Action told NECIR. Other deaths of children on the department’s watch have led to dismissals. “The unfortunate loss of this child and other recent child tragedies represent systemic failures and have resulted in a complete and full agency reform, which is underway,” said Rhonda Mann, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

However, poorly trained and inexperienced social workers often lack the judgment required to decide whether a child should be placed in the high risk category as opposed to the low risk, NECIR found. But despite mixed messages about her ability as a parent during the 2012 and 2013 investigations, social workers didn’t “delve deeper” — instead relied on Bond herself, said Maria Z. The report found that social workers failed to assess Rachelle Bond’s ability to function independently, her lifestyle choices and her history of substance abuse, all of which had drawn their attention in the past when she lost custody of two older children between 2001 and 2006.

The report on DCF’s history with Bella is likely to fuel questions about the agency’s ability to properly evaluate which children are truly at risk. Bond’s own statements in some cases and did not delve deeper by contacting professionals or agencies with whom she should have been working,” the report states.

DCF “has many systemic problems and we are going to fix them,” Governor Baker said at a press conference after the revelation that Bella’s family had already been on DCF’s radar. The report also found that DCF failed to gather sufficient information from other agencies that were working with Bond, and collected minimal, if any, family and personal information from Bond. DCF may have had a “false sense of security” that Bella would be safe because Bond was living at the time in a shelter and had been under the supervision of a probation officer. After giving birth in August 2012, Bond was discharged from the hospital to a family shelter, where mother and daughter received services from a home visiting program until May 2013. The report recommended that DCF ensure that case workers know how to take a proper history without relying on copying and pasting from previous reports.

But in fact, Bond had recently been discharged from probation and was working with a housing specialist to find an apartment, which should have raised concerns that there would be no one other than the mother watching the child. The report made a series of recommendations, including that DCF’s intake policy should require that when a report of abuse or neglect is filed for someone whose parental rights were terminated on other children, the report will be screened for an investigation and a managerial case review and legal consultation will occur.

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