The mother of two sisters who died in a suspected arson fire in South Boston on Sunday had chased her 14-year-old son around her house with a knife three weeks before the blaze, but the state Department of Social Services, after investigating the incident, took no immediate action in the case.
The March episode involving Anna Reisopoulos was but one of a dozen reports of abuse and neglect that were reported to DSS since 1995 and publicly detailed by agency officials yesterday. Among them: a case in which an infant daughter was hospitalized after swallowing a handful of prescription antianxiety pills left out by the mother and a case in which the same girl was found wandering outside alone on a cold February day.
But even as officials provided a glimpse into the often dysfunctional life of the Reisopoulos family, the head of DSS said that in the context of all the cases overseen by the agency, Reisopoulos's behavior was considered mild and didn't merit more intervention.
Angelo McClain, DSS commissioner, said in a telephone interview that after reading the family's case file he thought his agency had made an "extraordinary effort" to protect the children from a mother who has struggled for years with substance abuse and poverty.
"She never seriously hurt those kids," McClain said.
The agency is now investigating the fire deaths of Reisopoulos's two daughters, 14-year-old Acia Johnson, whom DSS had supposedly removed from the home, and 3-year-old Sophia Johnson. They were found huddled in an attic closet after the 3 a.m. blaze.
Fire investigators believe someone used an accelerant and lighted the West Sixth Street rowhouse on fire, two city officials briefed on the investigation have told the Globe. They are working with Boston police homicide detectives on the investigation, which had not produced any arrests as of last night.
Police and fire officials did not provide any new information on the investigation yesterday, except to say that it is ongoing.
More than 100 relatives, friends, and neighbors turned out last evening for a vigil held at West Sixth and D streets, where well-wishers in the past few days have created a memorial of flowers and hand-written messages for the two sisters. The vigil included a moment of silence, family and friends sharing special words, Bible readings, and song. At one point, a group of teens huddled together and sang the two sisters' names in a sportslike cheer. One boy held a basketball high above the teens' heads.
DSS had persuaded a judge to remove Reisopoulos's children from her custody in 2003 and place them with a grandmother. But friends, neighbors, and school officials said the children continued to live with Reisopoulos, unbeknownst to DSS officials.
All the while, the agency kept receiving and substantiating reports of neglect at Reisopoulos's house.
One child-protection advocacy organization said yesterday that it "strains logic" to believe the agency didn't realize the children were living with their mother in defiance of a court order when the complaints kept coming in about instances when they were in her home.
"Each one of these situations, the fact that the children were involved in all of these reports, it makes me wonder," said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group. "It begins to become difficult to understand why the department continued to believe this mother was being truthful about whether her children were living with her or not."
DSS initiated removal of the children after four substantiated reports of neglect and one of abuse stretching back to 1995, including an instance in which one of the children was beaten with a belt and one in which Reisopoulos used cocaine during a pregnancy, state officials confirmed.
In 2005, DSS began receiving neglect reports again, each one generally growing more serious than the last.
In April 2005, Raymond Johnson, the children's father, who is now serving time in jail, ran a red light with the children in the car. Police reported the incident to DSS because they took the father to jail and had nowhere to take the children.
In June 2006, Reisopoulos's youngest child, Sophia, who hadn't been removed from the home because she wasn't born at the time of the previous removal order, swallowed five tablets of Klonopin, a prescription antianxiety medicine, and was hospitalized. Both the hospital and police reported the incident to DSS.
In August 2007, the Suffolk district attorney's office told DSS that Reisopoulos had assaulted an unrelated 14-year-old male. Sophia Johnson and her older brother, Raymond Jr., Acia's twin, were with their mother when Reisopoulos pushed a male teen against a wall and threatened to stab his genitals, the DA said.
On Feb. 22 this year, Reisopoulos left Sophia alone with 14-year-old Raymond, and the 3-year-old left their South Boston house and wandered around the neighborhood.
And on March 14, Reisopoulos got into a physical altercation with Raymond Jr. and chased him around the house with a knife, according to state officials and a police report. Both sustained scratches in the fight. Raymond told police that his mother was "out of control," and Reisopoulos said the same of Raymond.
When DSS social workers went to investigate, McClain said, Raymond apologized and took the blame for the incident.
"Raymond said, 'It was all my fault,' " McClain said.
DSS had concluded its investigation of the incident and classified it as a substantiated report of neglect. Before the fire occurred, the agency had assigned a worker to determine what actions to take.
"We were basically determining what are the family's need for services and what are strengths in the family that we can build on," McClain said.
He said that, even though every incident happened while the children were in the mother's care, the agency believed they were not living with her but simply visiting, which was allowed under the court's removal order.
"Each time we talked with the family, what we were told is that they were living with the grandmother," McClain said.
McClain added that each time social workers dealt with Reisopoulos, she was honest about her problems and responded well to recommendations. For example, when Sophia was found wandering the streets, he said, Reisopoulos childproofed her home's doors.
He said the agency did not question the grandmother's apparent decision to let the children spend so much time with their mother, even though neglect reports continued to surface. McClain said the grandmother's decisions were appropriate.
"We suspect that over time, the grandmother felt more comfortable as they got older and as [Reisopoulos] was doing a better job taking care of the youngest child, as the mother was able to demonstrate greater ability," McClain said.
Jamie Vaznis of the Globe Staff contributed to this article. Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.