BOSTON — In fiscal 2017, there were 76 deaths of children under state care or supervision, 25 reports of near-fatalities and nine serious bodily injuries, according to a report released Tuesday by the Office of the Child Advocate.
All of these numbers have increased over the last three years.
By far the largest number of incidents were reported by the Department of Children and Families, although some came from agencies tasked with dealing with children with disabilities, mental health or physical health problems or who are involved in the criminal justice system.
The report comes on the heels of two audits that identified problems with the state systems tasked with looking after children. State officials from DCF and the education department said both agencies are improving.
“DCF is firmly committed to developing and continuously reviewing systems, policies and practices so that we’re consistently doing our very best for the children we serve,” said DCF Commissioner Linda Spears during a hearing of the Legislature’s Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.
The legislative oversight hearing was called in response to two separate audits. State auditor Suzanne Bump found that DCF did not report 118 incidents of sexual abuse of a child in the agency’s care, because sexual abuse did not rise to the definition of a “critical incident.”
A federal audit by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General identified health and safety violations at group homes for foster children, including broken furniture, overflowing trash cans, foul-smelling bedding and a lack of windows.
The latest report was the state Office of the Child Advocate’s annual report, which documents reports of incidents involving children under state supervision or state custody.
The largest number of “critical incidents” – 42 – involved children age 0 to 3, and another 28 involved teenagers between 16 and 20 years old.
While a few incidents involved suspected abuse, they also included deaths or injuries from medical conditions, accidents, fires and suicide.
Of the 28 fatalities involving children 0-3 in DCF custody, 18 were sudden and unexpected, mostly involving a child in an unsafe sleep environment. For teenagers in DCF custody, gunshot wounds were a major source of serious injuries and deaths.
The Child Advocate also reviewed 655 allegations of abuse or neglect involving 429 children. The most reports came from congregate care, which are settings like group homes. Around 80 percent of the allegations involved neglect rather than abuse.
The Child Advocate received 339 complaints through its complaint line, with the most common complaint being DCF practice — including a lack of agency responsiveness and decisions made by social workers.
At the legislative hearing, Spears and Early Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber both said they have taken steps to address problems in their agencies. The focus of the hearing was the earlier audits, not the Child Advocate’s report.
Spears said DCF was in “crisis” in 2015, but the state has since developed new policies and hired new staff. There are now 101 more managers and 341 more social workers than in September 2015. The department hired its first full-time medical director and increased the number of nurses on staff. Nearly the entire social worker staff is licensed, compared to around half the staff that were licensed in 2015.
While caseloads are still higher than child protection workers would like, they have improved.
Spears said the department is now reporting all cases of sexual abuse to the Office of Child Advocate. It is working on a tool for “risk assessment.”
DCF hired recruiters to find more potential foster homes and is piloting a program to engage family members who might take children.
After Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, raised concerns about high turnover rates, Spears said DCF staff have a turnover rate of around 10 percent. Child protection agencies in many other states have turnover rates around 25 percent.
The group home problems flagged in the federal audit are under the Department of Early Education and Care.
Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, chairwoman of the committee, called photos in the federal audit “shocking.”
Weber responded, “We are in agreement with you about our dissatisfaction about the results produced as a result of the (Office of the Inspector General) report.”
“Some of the pictures you saw are not commonplace,” Weber said.
Spears said many of the violations are “pretty horrendous,” but cycle quickly. For example, a child may punch a hole in the wall, which will get repaired.
Weber said in the last year, the department has begun conducting unannounced inspections of group homes. It is developing a new information technology system to speed up its background check process. The department also hired five additional investigators.