LYNN — Governor Deval Patrick defended the state’s child welfare agency on Thursday, even as his administration called for a thorough review of the agency’s decision to leave a baby boy in the troubled home where he was fatally assaulted this week.
The state’s Office of the Child Advocate was charged with conducting the investigation. On Wednesday, the Department of Children & Families said it would launch an internal review.
Patrick said the child’s death was a “horrible thing,” but raised no broader concerns about the agency’s judgment.
DCF staffers “do their very best” in difficult situations, handle an untold number of cases successfully, and must deal with the tough questions that arise when things go wrong, he told reporters after a radio appearance at WGBH studios in Brighton.
“I can assure you, without having talked to anybody, that they are probably asking themselves those questions right now,” he said.
DCF had placed the boy’s 3-year-old brother in foster care last year after receiving a report of negligence, and was aware the infant and his twin brother were born with drugs in their system. But the agency chose not to take the twins into protective custody, despite expressing concerns about whether their mother and her boyfriend could care for them.
DCF had been providing a range of services to Jennifer Nelson, the children’s mother, and her boyfriend, Anthony Gideika.
On Wednesday, Gideika was charged with fatally beating 3-month-old Chase Gideika, who died Tuesday from massive head injuries. Gideika, 32, told investigators he had recently learned the twins were not his biological children, a discovery that had “set him off” and led him to begin abusing prescription drugs.
Gideika served three years in the Army as a combat engineer and received a number of commendations, according to military records. He was deployed to Iraq from February 2004 to February 2005. He was disabled as a result of his service, his lawyer said in court Wednesday.
Gail Garinger, a former Juvenile Court judge who leads the child advocate office, said the review will focus on how the case was handled, and whether there were warning signs that the child was in danger.
It will also determine whether the agency’s policies were followed in making the decision to leave the child in the home.
Garinger declined to comment on the agency’s decision.
But Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group working to reform child welfare systems, said the boy’s death raises questions about the agency’s judgment.
“It’s not clear whether the state had any reason to believe the children in the home would be safe under the circumstances,” said Marcia Lowry, the group’s executive director.
Last year, the group released a series of critical reports on the state’s foster care system, contending that nearly one in five children in state custody for at least two years has suffered abuse or neglect.
The reports are part of a class-action lawsuit it brought against the state’s child welfare system.
Lowry said DCF is plagued by high case loads, inadequate training for social workers, and lax oversight.
“We know the state has long had structural deficiencies that play out in horrible ways,” she said. “We hope there will be a thorough investigation of what happened and why.”
Lowry said Massachusetts ranks in the bottom 10 of states in two key measures — the rate of maltreatment of children in foster care, and the recurrence of maltreatment of children who are left in the home.
DCF officials declined comment on Thursday.
Social workers and advocacy groups said DCF is increasingly seeking to keep children in their homes by providing support services, including parenting classes and treatment programs.
“We know children grow up best with their parents, and as a system, we have an approach that works with families to keep kids safe,” said Mary McGeown, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Everyone who worked with the family, she said, is “asking themselves ‘Is there something we could have done?’
“And that’s exactly what they need to be doing,” she said.
Peter Evers, vice president of program operations for The Home for Little Wanderers, which provides a range of child and family services, said determining when children should be taken from their parents’ care can be a painstaking process.
“We value families and we empower them, while doing our absolute best to ensure their safety,” he said. “There aren’t any more difficult decisions.”John R. Ellement, Brian Ballou, and Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.