For the first time since COVID-19 scrambled daily life last year, social workers within Massachusetts’ child welfare agency will resume in-person visits for all of the 40,000-plus children they oversee, state officials said Tuesday, adding that they expect to see each child by month’s end.
Linda Spears, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, announced the policy change, which took effect last week, in response to questions during a wide-ranging legislative oversight hearing into the death of David Almond. The intellectually disabled Fall River teen died in October, and was starved and abused by his father and his father’s girlfriend while under the watch of DCF, investigators said.
Across 2½ hours of testimony before the Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, Spears and Marylou Sudders, the state’s health secretary, could not explain a series of flawed decision-making by DCF employees in Almond’s case. That included the choice to move toward reuniting the 14-year-old and his brother with their father a day after court officials deemed him unfit to care for the teens. John Almond and his girlfriend, Jaclyn Marie Coleman, have since been charged with second-degree murder in David Almond’s death.
But the state officials emphatically defended the direction of the agency under pointed questioning from lawmakers, who asked whether officials have confidence in their ability to protect children given DCF already experienced a string of other high-profile deaths shortly before and after Governor Charlie Baker took office in 2015.
“I have complete confidence in Commissioner Spears and her ability to lead the agency from 2015 forward” to now, Sudders told state Senator Adam Gomez, the committee’s Senate chairman. “Honestly, I’m sort of taken aback by your question, sir.”
DCF staff had never visited David Almond in person during the seven months before he was found unresponsive in October in the cramped one-bedroom apartment he shared with five others. His death was the culmination of what the state’s Office of the Child Advocate said in March was a “multi-system failure” between DCF, Fall River schools, the courts, and others to protect or monitor him.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, DCF pivoted primarily to virtual visitations outside of emergency situations, a decision Spears said was based on guidance from federal officials. DCF in August began alternating in-person and video visits each month for many of the nearly 42,000 children the agency cares for or supervises.
That practice continued deep into the pandemic. State officials said last month that as of January — the most recent month of data that DCF said was available — fewer than 50 percent of children in DCF caseloads were seen in person.
Spears said Tuesday that as of April 26, DCF social workers were again required to make in-person visits to children under their supervision, roughly 80 percent which remain in their homes or with family.
“I expect by the end of the month everyone will have seen those . . . kids,” Spears told lawmakers.
DCF staff did not identify the Almond family as being “high-risk,” though Spears said Tuesday that social workers in David’s case should have visited him in person at least three times in the seven months after he was reunited with his father. Coleman, his father’s girlfriend, repeatedly refused to allow the visits, and social workers instead checked in monthly by video, where Coleman staged the meetings to hide the teen’s abuse, according to the Office of the Child Advocate report.
The widespread reliance on virtual visits during the pandemic nevertheless frustrated some lawmakers, particularly after social workers were given access to personal protective equipment last spring.
“If DCF had just gotten one set of eyeballs on David Almond throughout this entire time, this potentially could have been prevented,” state Senator John C. Velis said Tuesday. “Is there anything more essential than the well-being of our kids?”
Tuesday’s hearing, which began 10 a.m. Tuesday, stretched into the evening, and included testimony from state education and court officials, as well as Maria Mossaides, the director of the Office of the Child Advocate.
The focus largely landed on DCF. Hampered by budget cuts a decade ago, its spending now tops $1 billion, but Almond’s death has stirred questions of how it services children with disabilities and navigates increasingly complex child welfare work.
“How many more subsequent oversight hearings will have to be held until we make much-needed changes?” asked Gomez, a Springfield Democrat.
Spears and Sudders said they are reshaping the department’s policies to require social workers to consult with clinical experts in certain cases. They also intend to offer social workers the ability to raise concerns outside the typical chain of command if they don’t agree with a manager’s decision-making.
Several of the Office of the Child Advocates’ recommendations, however, are similar, if not nearly identical, to past changes it pushed DCF to make after previous children’s deaths shook confidence in the department in 2014 and 2015.
Spears said it since has created a statewide quality assurance program to review cases, though she acknowledged it lacks the ability to provide a detailed analysis at the lower-office level “that we think may be the next thing [to implement].”
Sudders offered a lengthy defense of the steps the Baker administration has taken to add hundreds of social workers since 2015 and implement the variety of the changes demanded from previous investigations.
“Are there more changes that we need to make? Absolutely,” Sudders said, “because the needs of kids continue to evolve.”
The Office of the Child Advocate provided new data to the committee Tuesday showing that DCF submitted nearly 300 so-called critical incident reports documenting child deaths, abuse, or injuries in fiscal year 2020, more than a double the year prior. Her office attributes the increase to a spike in “emotional injury” incidents — where a child witnesses a death, overdose, suicide or some other violent act — and which DCF has only begun disclosing in recent years.
In nearly half of the all the critical reports — 139 in total — the child advocate also flagged concerns with how DCF handled the case, including instances where monthly visits weren’t performed, a child was “inappropriately left” in the care of a parent, or closing a case without addressing the core concerns that first prompted it, among other situations.
“Until we address the systemic operational issues with management of the DCF system, I’m very concerned that we are going to be back here year after year,” said state Representative Natalie M. Blais, a Sunderland Democrat. “We have to figure out a way to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”