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Savage toll of abuse for children in DCF care

More than 95 have died since ’01, state reports say

Top, from left: Dontel Jeffers, 4, died in 2005; Rebecca Riley, 4, of Hull died in 2006. Bottom, from left: Jeremiah Oliver, 5, has been missing since Sept. 14 and is now feared dead; Acia Johnson, 14, and her sister Sophia, 3, died in 2008. Their cases were overseen by state workers.

Top, from left: Dontel Jeffers, 4, died in 2005; Rebecca Riley, 4, of Hull died in 2006. Bottom, from left: Jeremiah Oliver, 5, has been missing since Sept. 14 and is now feared dead; Acia Johnson, 14, and her sister Sophia, 3, died in 2008. Their cases were overseen by state workers.

Kadyn Hancock’s aunt said she repeatedly tried to warn state officials that the 13-month-old’s mother might hurt him. But no one heeded her pleas, and Kadyn’s mother killed her baby in 2010.

Last summer, child advocates questioned why social workers did not remove 3-month-old Chase Gideika from his troubled home before he was brutally killed, allegedly by his mother’s boyfriend.

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Now the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver — missing and feared dead after social workers allegedly failed to check on him for months — is once again raising alarms that the state is unable to protect some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents.

Though Governor Deval Patrick last week described Oliver’s disappearance as a unique tragedy in which state officials failed to do their jobs, state records show that children under the watch of the Department of Children and Families actually die with alarming regularity.

Since 2001, more than 95 Massachusetts children whose cases were overseen by state social workers have died directly or indirectly because of abuse or neglect, according to state statistics. The death toll probably is considerably higher because state officials have not revealed how many died from 2011 to 2013.

Some of the deaths make headlines, but many more children die anonymously, half of them before they celebrate their first birthday, according to state reports.

Over all, children who received services from social workers at DCF in 2010 were about six times as likely as the general population of Bay State children to die from maltreatment, according to the state’s own calculations.

Sisters Acia and Sophia Johnson died in 2008 in a South Boston house fire. The family had a history of violence and neglect, officials said.

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

Sisters Acia and Sophia Johnson died in 2008 in a South Boston house fire. The family had a history of violence and neglect, officials said.

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And while the state provided mortality data only through 2010, there is evidence that the death rate among children under DCF supervision has not declined from the average of 9 or 10 a year for the past decade. The number of “critical incident reports” that DCF workers must file when children are killed, injured, or otherwise traumatized has increased since 2010.

State officials say it should come as no surprise that children in families under DCF supervision are at higher risk to die from abuse and neglect because the agency looks after Massachusetts’ most troubled households. The vast majority of children receiving state services come from homes plagued by dysfunction that is often exacerbated by poverty, domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Moreover, there is no accurate state-by-state comparison of deaths among children receiving social services, making it difficult to compare Massachusetts with other places. Over all, Massachusetts children die from maltreatment far less frequently than the national average, state records show.

But child advocates have long said that DCF leaves too many children with caregivers who could hurt them, sometimes with lethal results.

“We know that the situation in Massachusetts is dangerous for at-risk children,’’ said Marcia Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, a New York-based watchdog group that filed a federal lawsuit alleging that DCF “routinely” places children in “dangerous and unstable situations.’’ The lawsuit was recently dismissed, though group is appealing the ruling.

The agency’s defenders say that DCF social workers agonize over every death, doing their best to protect children in dangerous situations even as they endure budget cuts. DCF’s budget fell from a high of $836.5 million in fiscal year 2009 to $737.1 million in fiscal year 2012, according to the state, though Governor Patrick has proposed an increase for next year.

“There is good work going on there,’’ said Susan Pederzoli, a licensed independent clinical social worker who works as a DCF consultant. “It’s a field where the people are very dedicated and care about the kids very much. It is not an easy job. You have to love it to stay in it.”

Gail Garinger, head of the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, agreed that DCF does its best to prevent fatalities, but she said that may not be enough.

“A rate of child death due to maltreatment that is six times higher” than the general child population “is very concerning and needs further attention,” said Garinger, whose office does its own review of child deaths each year.

And Laurie Myers, founder of Community Voices, a child protection and victim advocacy organization in Chelmsford, said the sheer number of child fatalities in Massachusetts points to a failing system. She believes the state needs to shift its focus from keeping families together toward simply protecting children.

“We have to do a better job,” she said. “We can’t say they are dying just because they are vulnerable anyway, and they don’t matter.”

Andrea Rizzitano has filed suit against DCF in the death of her nephew Kadyn Hancock.

YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

Andrea Rizzitano has filed suit against DCF in the death of her nephew Kadyn Hancock.

DCF reviews all deaths of Bay State children whose demise is linked to abuse and neglect, partly to review the safety of other siblings in the household. However, because of state and federal confidentiality laws, most details of these cases remain hidden from public scrutiny.

Yet, in several cases in recent years, troubling details have emerged about social workers who failed in the basics of their jobs.

Authorities learned Jeremiah Oliver was missing in December after his 7-year-old sister told Fitchburg school officials that she and her siblings were being abused. Jeremiah’s mother’s boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra, has been charged in Fitchburg District Court with abusing the little boy, and his mother, Elsa Oliver, is facing charges of abuse as well as failing to protect her son. Both have pleaded not guilty and their next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 21.

After Oliver’s disappearance was discovered in December, the state fired the social worker overseeing his case and two supervisors for what the DCF commissioner described as “gross disregard of duty.” Already, the tragedy has brought to light the fact that Massachusetts social workers apparently failed to make nearly 1 in 5 of their required monthly home visits in 2013.

Patrick last week said he believed Jeremiah’s case pointed more to problem employees than a systematic failure in DCF. Nonetheless, he said the tragedy has provided an opportunity to review the child protection system as a whole. He has requested that the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America carry out a full review of the agency that employees more than 2,000 social workers and serves some 100,000 children a year.

Jeremiah’s story, Patrick said last week, “points to other weaknesses in the department that we’re trying to locate and to determine whether they are in fact out of line with what the best practices are in the best places in the country.”

Likewise, Waltham resident Andrea Rizzitano, 42, believes her 13-month-old nephew Kadyn Hancock was failed by the system. Hancock was allegedly beaten to death in 2010 by his mother, Christina Hancock, who pleaded guilty last year to involuntary manslaughter and is serving up to 10 years in state prison.

Last year, Rizzitano filed suit in US District Court against the state Department of Children and Families and Governor Patrick for failing to protect the boy from his troubled mother, who Rizzitano said fractured his arm several months before his death.

She claims she called social workers dozens of times, concerned that Kadyn was not safe — particularly after her nephew went to the hospital with a broken arm. She alleged in court records that after the incident DCF removed Kadyn for a week and then returned him to his home.

State officials declined to comment on Kadyn’s case. Last week, Judge Joseph Tauro dismissed the claims, arguing in part that public employees are immune from legal claims of negligence. Rizzitano plans to appeal the case or fight the dismissal by a motion in court next week.

“This isn’t over, believe me. There has to be accountability,’’ she said. “Kadyn was robbed of his life.”

The debate about child welfare workers’ failings takes place against a more heartening backdrop: The number of deaths from all causes among children with an open or recently closed DCF case dropped from 84 in 1989 to 30 in 2010, according to the state.

But few child advocates believe the decline reflects significant improvements in preventing child abuse. The decline is partly attributed to a reduction in sudden infant death syndrome fatalities, which fell precipitously nationwide in the 1990s with the launch of a US “back-to-sleep” campaign, urging parents to put children to sleep on their backs.

Still, some high-profile deaths have prompted change in the child protection system — or at least soul searching. Patrick created the Office of the Child Advocate in 2007 in the wake of tragedies including the death of 4-year-old Dontel Jeffers in 2005 after only nine days in a new foster home and the death of Rebecca Riley, 4, of Hull who died in 2006 after her parents, who were also under state supervision, deliberately gave her a toxic overdose of psychotropic drugs.

More recently, the governor called for a review of DCF’s decisions in the death of Lynn baby Chase Gideika, who died in July from massive head injuries allegedly inflicted by his mother’s boyfriend, Anthony Gideika. DCF workers had chosen to leave the baby in the home even though he was born with drugs in his system.

Jetta Bernier, executive director of the Boston-based advocacy group, Massachusetts Citizens for Children, said each time a high profile child death occurs, public officials promise action, but that determination wanes with time.

“During recent public hearings, legislators were quick to make blustering criticisms of DCF,’’ said Bernier, who heads the group also known as MassKids. “Where was all this indignation when decisions were made to reduce its budget and cripple it with 200 less social workers? Everyone has to take responsibility here.”

Jenifer McKim is a reporter at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news center based out of Boston University and WGBH Radio/TV. She can be reached at 617-300-2305 or jmckim@bu.edu. Follow her on twitter @jbmckim.

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