The number of Massachusetts children removed from their homes for abuse or neglect has fallen sharply in recent years, even as reports of child abuse or neglect have climbed, government figures show. The trend has prompted concerns that more children are being left in dangerous situations, like the Lynn infant who was beaten to death last month.
State social workers are filing 30 percent fewer court petitions to remove children from their homes than they did five years ago, and the number of children removed from their homes has fallen by 20 percent. During the same period, reports of child abuse and neglect have increased by about 6 percent.
Child welfare advocates say the declining number of children removed from their homes reflects a philosophical shift toward helping troubled parents through counseling, drug treatment, and other forms of support so more children can remain at home, an approach widely backed by children’s advocates.
But the decline also follows budget cuts at the state Department of Children and Families that has put pressure on the agency to put fewer children into costly foster care, and has compromised its ability to finance family supports, advocates say.
“The state is saving money, but not necessarily protecting children,” said Marcia Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group working to improve child welfare systems that has brought a class-action lawsuit against the department. “It’s clear there are financial pressures on the agency, and this raises questions about how much those considerations are playing a role in decision-making.”
The risk of leaving children in unstable homes was realized last month, when a 3-month-old boy was fatally beaten in a Lynn home plagued by drug addiction, mental health issues, and troubling outside influences. Anthony Gideika, the boyfriend of the baby’s mother, Jennifer Nelson, is accused of fatally assaulting 3-month-old Chase Gideika.
In June 2012, the department took Nelson’s 2-year-old son into protective custody after he was found unattended on a busy street, with Nelson and Gideika passed out nearby after a visit to a methadone clinic.
“After speaking to Jennifer Nelson at length, it was obvious to everyone involved that [the 2-year-old] was not safe in the care of his mother,” according to a police report obtained by the Globe.
Yet when Chase and his twin brother were born with methadone and a commonly abused sedative in their systems the following spring, the department decided not to take them into protective custody, despite fundamental concerns over Nelson’s and Gideika’s fitness as parents.
The Patrick administration has launched an investigation into the handling of the case. But critics say the decision not to remove the children, while an extreme example, is in keeping with the agency’s focus on keeping families together.
Department officials have denied requests to discuss the Lynn case, citing the ongoing criminal investigation and privacy restrictions.
In a statement, the agency said that, in general, decisions to remove children are made by a clinical team consisting of a social worker, a licensed supervisor, and a manager. An assessment seeks to determine the “current safety and potential risk of the child” through interviews and prior history with the agency.
A court has held that substance abuse alone does not automatically translate into legal unfitness to parent, the agency said.
But specialists say the decision not to remove the children was unusual. In nearly all cases, the department will seek to remove newborns who test positive for drugs from the mother’s care, at least for a time, specialists said. The department is typically more aggressive about removing neglected infants because they are vulnerable and need such intensive care.
A review of court records show Nelson and Gideika have a long history of drug addiction. Gideika’s criminal record, in particular, shows his downward spiral.
Yet there is growing consensus among child welfare specialists that children are generally better off staying in chaotic homes than being placed in foster care. Child welfare lawyers and advocates say the agency’s efforts to keep children in their homes has been a welcome shift from previous eras, when the agency was decidedly more aggressive about removing children.
On a practical level, there are not enough foster care parents to handle so many children, specialists say. And placing children in foster care can often make a bad situation worse, especially given the fact that most children will eventually return home.
“People will point to the harm that happens when children remain in their parents’ care,” said Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel of the Children and Family Law Program at the state public defender’s office. “But there are also significant harms in removing children from their homes.”
The state agency has said that Nelson and Gideika were in treatment programs and receiving parenting services. Members of their extended family were also helping them care for the infants.
On a June 7 visit to the home, a department social worker observed that both children were healthy and being cared for.
Susan Elsen, a lawyer with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute who focuses on children and family issues, said the focus on family preservation is appropriate, particularly in relatively minor cases of neglect. These situations, which are often intertwined with issues of poverty, can typically be stabilized with outside help, she said.
“In my view it’s generally a good thing that DCF is putting fewer children in foster care,” Elsen said. “At the same time, keeping children safely at home requires adequate supportive services for families. DCF is mandated to provide these services, but doing so has been a challenge because of budget cuts in recent years.”
The agency’s budget has been cut sharply in recent years, falling from $836 million in 2009 to $759 million. That decline has at once put pressure on the agency to put fewer children into costly foster care and has compromised its ability to finance family supports, advocates say.
“They need to be adequately funded,” said Mary McGeown, president of The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “It’s a very intensive level of care to provide the right amount of support for these families.”
Peter MacKinnon, an agency supervisor and Department of Children and Families chapter president for the statewide union of human service workers, said budget cuts have created heavier caseloads, and that keeping troubled families together is hard, time-consuming work.
“The intensity of the cases has increased,” he said. “They just have more issues.”
Since 2009, the state agency has lost about 240 employees, a 7 percent drop.
MacKinnon declined to comment on the Lynn case, but he said he believes the agency has improved its process of determining when to remove children by considering a broader range of factors, such as the involvement of extended family members.
“I think it’s important we look at all these factors,” he said. “It’s something the agency wasn’t as good at in the past.”
Yet a review of court records, public documents that would have been available to department caseworkers, shows that Nelson and Gideika have a long history of drug addiction. Gideika’s criminal record, in particular, notes his downward spiral in the 18 months before the birth of the twins.
In July 2011, he crashed his car into an emergency vehicle parked on Route 1 in Peabody. While he was being booked on charges of driving under the influence of drugs, Gideika “continually nodded off, bobbing his head,” a police report stated. “He was almost incomprehensible at times because he would start speaking and nod off.”
While signing his name, Gideika twice fell asleep on his feet, the report stated.
Gideika told police he was on methadone and that he had smoked crack an hour before. His arms were covered with track marks, evidence of using heroin, the report says. After that arrest, Gideika failed to enter a court-ordered drug treatment program or meet with his probation officer.
About a year later, two months after losing custody of her son, Nelson was driving with Gideika to a known drug-dealing spot when their vehicle crashed, striking two other vehicles and smashing into a fire hydrant. They fled the scene on foot and headed home.
When police caught up to them, the couple offered muddled explanations, as well as a fake name. Gideika, on probation for drunken driving, would later be sentenced to two months in jail.
In October 2012, Nelson sought a restraining order against the father of her 2-year-old. Then 10 weeks pregnant with twins, Nelson said Mark Baille and his girlfriend were constantly harassing her, calling her phone at all hours and regularly ringing her apartment buzzer.
“I’m in fear, as well as danger, for my health and my unborn children,” she wrote. She did not want Baille knowing she was pregnant, she wrote, because the children were not his. Baille had previously applied for a restraining order against Nelson, saying she was prone to “unprovoked rages.”
“Since the birth of our son she has been aggressive, angry, possibly dangerous to my son,” he wrote in 2010. Nelson “is highly medicated on methadone, Klonopin, lithium for bipolar.”
Drug addiction was at the heart of the reported neglect that led to the older child being taken into protective custody. Donna Currier, a neighbor, found Gideika passed out on the stoop of her building. When she looked out the door, she noticed a toddler walking toward busy Western Avenue.
“The poor boy, he was so cute. It looked like he was used to waiting for his father to wake up. I said to the guy, ‘Hey, your son is going out to the street.’ And he woke up a little, but then nodded off again. He’d start dialing his phone and then just nod off.”
Currier called for help and a police officer soon arrived. The officer walked up to Gideika without his waking, she said.
“Then he got up and said his girlfriend was sleeping in the car,” she said.
Currier said the death of the baby was very sad, and avoidable. “They should never have been able to walk out of the hospital with those kids,” she said.Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.