Workers in Massachusetts’ child welfare agency are seeing only about half of the children under their watch in-person each month, state data show, illustrating the state’s heavy reliance on remote check-ins during the pandemic even as schools, day cares, and others have returned mostly to face-to-face interactions.
The October death of David Almond, an intellectually disabled teen from Fall River, underscored the potential risks in relying solely on virtual visits, particularly as other safeguards fail. The 14-year-old’s father and his father’s girlfriend — now charged with murder in his death — routinely staged his video meetings with social workers from the Department of Children and Families to hide his abuse, state investigators found.
DCF staff never visited the family in person for the seven months before Almond was found unresponsive in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, the culmination of what a state probe last week called a “multi-system failure” between DCF, Fall River schools, and other agencies to protect or monitor him.
Since August, DCF has relied on a policy of alternating in-person and video visits each month for many of the nearly 42,000 children for which the agency cares or supervises, though it has continued to conduct emergency visits in person throughout the pandemic.
But in shifting how it monitors vulnerable children, DCF has never issued statewide guidance to social workers on what constitutes an “effective” virtual visit or virtual interview of children or parents, according to the Office of the Child Advocate’s investigation of Almond’s death.
Those findings, detailed in the independent agency’s 107-page report released last week, highlighted the potential gaps in what’s been the department’s slow return to widespread in-person checks, which DCF itself considers the gold standard for child protection.
“There is a way to do this work in a pandemic,” said Jane Lyons, the executive director of Friends of Children, an advocacy organization. “But COVID has served as an amplifier of a system that was already not operating well prior to the pandemic.”
In January, the most recent month of data that DCF said is available, about 46 percent of children in DCF caseloads were seen in person. Roughly 89 percent were seen in some fashion — virtually or face-to-face — which itself was a drop from January 2020, when 91 percent of children were seen in-person.
In December 2020, the rate of in-person visits within DCF was at 54 percent.
The dearth of in-person DCF visits stands in sharp contrast to the state’s expectations for in-person schooling. An estimated 90 percent of school districts across the state were offering full-time learning for elementary students as of Monday as part of a state mandate for schools to fully reopen for in-person instruction as soon as possible. Many early-childhood education providers have been open since the summer.
The DCF data only fueled further questions among advocates and others, including how thorough even in-person visits have been across the state.
According to guidance DCF sent workers in December, when visiting high-risk families in so-called “red zone” communities — or those with the highest number of per-capita COVID cases — interviews had to be conducted outdoors and tours of homes had to be done virtually. For families considered at lower risk for the potential of neglect or abuse and living in communities hit hard by COVID, DCF’s guidance allowed for virtual visits exclusively.
DCF officials said Monday that its workers don’t evenly split visits to children in their caseload month to month, but base visits on a child’s perceived risk for abuse and neglect, including, for example, if a new person moved into their home. Last summer, DCF began prioritizing face-to-face visits based on the last time DCF made contact of any kind with a child.
Risk assessments, however, can be judgment calls, and the decision not to classify David Almond as high-risk despite a troubled family history and his and a sibling’s disability was one of DCF’s most glaring errors, the state’s Office of the Child Advocate found. Although the agency released practice tips for video conference visits last March, it emphasized there were never national best practices for video conferencing before the pandemic.
Linda Spears, DCF’s commissioner, said last week the agency would incorporate all of the child advocate’s recommendations, which includes guidance on virtual visits. “They will be our bible going forward in terms of how we do this work,” she told reporters.
Maria Mossaides, the director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said alternating in-person and virtual visits may be appropriate for now. But as the weather warms and more workers are vaccinated against COVID-19, she said there’s “no excuse not to find a place to meet.” (Social workers were made eligible for vaccines starting in late January.)
“I want these conversations to happen, not just for monitoring but in making sure families have the supports that they need,” Mossaides said in a Globe interview Monday, adding that DCF needs to “quickly pivot” in a shifting COVID landscape. “That’s a challenge for most state agencies, because we are bureaucracies and we are covered by collective bargaining. But what we learned from the pandemic is there’s a need for that pivot as things change.”
A spokeswoman for SEIU Local 509, which represents DCF social workers, said neither its president, Peter MacKinnon, or the local DCF chapter head, Adriana Zwick, were available for interviews. While officials meet regularly with DCF leadership, the union said it had not been provided any new guidance on conducting visits or on DCF’s plans for ramping up in-person work.
The investigation into Almond’s death highlighted how sole reliance on virtual visits could go horribly wrong. When David met with social workers virtually, he was always seated and in the presence of his father’s girlfriend, Jaclyn Marie Coleman, who directed him on what to say, according to the Office of the Child Advocate’s report.
Coleman also often claimed to have problems with Internet access, telling DCF workers they could only use the WhatsApp application for video conferencing and for only short periods of time, according to the report. Simultaneously, Fall River public school staff never spoke to or saw David or his brother between March, when they were scheduled to begin school, and David’s death in October.
When first responders found David in October, he weighed just 80 pounds, he had fentanyl in his system, and the apartment was filled with hundreds of baggies with heroin residue, police said. His father, John Almond, and Coleman have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and neglect charges.
DCF officials said they offered training in February and March to more than 300 supervisors to “refresh social worker skills,” but described the sessions as “general risk assessment retraining,” not specific to virtual visits.
“We’re 13 months into this [pandemic]. There really needs to be guidance about how you assess risk,” said Tammy Mello, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts. “If there is a surge with all of these COVID variants out there that requires schools to shut down for a period of time, what’s in place to continue to do that risk assessment? I’m not clear that that’s in place.”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.