Report: Despite DCF efforts, 35 kids died in state care

Report: Despite DCF efforts, 35 kids died in state care



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‘BUILDING BLOCKS ARE BEING RESTORED’: Maria Mossaides, director of the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate, said there’s been progress in the state’s child care system, headed by Department of Children and Families Commissioner Linda S. Spears, above. Staff Photo by Nancy Lane


As many as 35 children died while in state care or custody last fiscal year — half of them less than a year old, including a dozen substance-exposed newborns, according to a new report that underscores the troubles still facing the state’s child welfare agency despite new funding.

The report, released late Wednesday by the state Office of the Child Advocate, also showed sharp hikes in abuse and neglect allegations, as well as deaths, statewide.

In all, 64 children receiving services from various state agencies died in fiscal 2016, which ran from July 2015 to June 2016. Another 68 died in fiscal 2015. The numbers marked significant hikes from previously available annual data — covering calendar year 2014 — when there were 40.

But children under oversight of the Department of Children and Families accounted for the majority of the deaths.

Of the 35 children who died under the agency’s watch last year, 17 were less than a year old, including a dozen newborns who had been exposed to controlled substances. Two others were just months old when they died of suspected physical abuse, the report states.

“One death is too many, never mind 35,” said Jennifer Lane, president of the advocacy group Community Voices.

“You can make changes and keep throwing money at the issue, but there are still children in state custody dying at an alarming rate. … What this report tells me is that DCF has a lot of work to do.”

The annual report — the first released since director Maria Mossaides took over the OCA in the fall of 2015 — notes that the deaths account for less than 1 percent of the 9,225 children the agency had in foster homes and other settings. It’s an even smaller share of the 40,400 that make up its total case load, and officials stressed that many deaths did not involve abuse or neglect, but other circumstances, including medical conditions.

“The Department takes every report of neglect or abuse seriously to ensure vigilance in protecting our most vulnerable and investigates child fatalities to understand all factors involved,” said Andrea Grossman, a spokeswoman for DCF Commissioner Linda S. Spears, who added that the department has hired hundreds of social workers and 15 others to recruit foster families.

The new data come as DCF has seen an infusion of resources and staff, buoyed largely by a string of deaths that exposed an overburdened system struggling with out-of-date policies.

Since fiscal 2015, the agency’s budget has climbed by $131.6 million and it’s expected to spend more than $958.6 million by the close of this year in June.

“Most states who have been through this type of crisis, it doesn’t go away in six months. There’s a huge uptick and it takes a longer time to get to what a new normal would be,” Mossaides told the Herald.

“Across the board, the building blocks are being restored. The question is, can this progress be sustained? … I think that’s everyone’s big question.”

The report points to other red flags. Officials found 829 separate allegations of abuse and neglect across various settings, ranging from residential care to hospitals and schools — a 30 percent spike from the 633 in calendar year 2014.

Of the new allegations, 221 stemmed from foster care alone, the vast majority being cases of neglect. Mossaides said no clear pattern of problems drove the figures in foster care, but she said the overall jumps appear tied to the heroin scourge that’s driven more families into the child welfare system.

“I really believe that with the effects of the opioid crisis, you’re seeing these increase across the board category by category,” she said.

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