That’s the word child safety officials keep using to describe the decisions that preceded the death of David Almond, and the near-death of his brother Michael, in Fall River last year. The 14-year-olds, two of a set of triplets born with autism spectrum disorder, were both victims of horrific abuse by adults who should never have had custody of them in the first place.
When police were finally called to his home last October, they found David unresponsive and emaciated. He had been starved and abused and had fentanyl in his system. He spent the last months of his short life living in deplorable conditions with three adults and two other children in a one-bedroom apartment police said was littered with baggies containing drug residue. A few more days, and his brother Michael — also emaciated, also with fentanyl in his system — might have died, too.
This is one of the most haunting child-abuse cases I have ever seen. David and his brothers weren’t invisible, like so many child victims: A legion of workers across two states had been closely involved in their lives since they were born. There were seas of red flags that worried the social workers, teachers, and others who cared for them. Alarms were raised by clinicians, a probation officer, a teacher. There were dozens of opportunities to pull the boys away from the parents who had made little effort to hide their incompetence and deadly cruelty.
There is so much in the Office of the Child Advocate report into David’s death to terrify, enrage, and, yes, to mystify. The 100-page account is full of moments that make you want to shout, or cry.
Nobody, for example, can explain why higher-ups at the Fall River office of the Department of Children and Families were in such a rush to reunite the boys with their father, John Almond, and his girlfriend, Jaclyn Coleman, in late 2019. New York authorities removed the boys from John Almond and their mother three times since they were born, and DCF removed them from Almond and Coleman in 2017.
John Almond had recently again been found unfit by a juvenile court, the adults weren’t even pretending to participate in parental support services, and the caseworkers closest to the family were urging caution. Clinicians at the boys’ residential program, where they had been thriving, raised the alarm, yet services weren’t put in place for them.
One of the triplets, Noah, was returned to his residential school in the middle of the triplets’ overnight visit to the apartment in Fall River, and refused to go back again, yet DCF — incurious about the child’s decision to leave the brothers from whom he was inseparable — moved to keep the other two brothers in the apartment permanently.
Social workers have the hardest jobs in the world, but none of these were close calls. That’s what makes them so mystifying and terrifying. Why make such choices?
“The decisions weren’t documented,” Child Advocate Maria Mossaides said in an interview. “We interviewed many people and we didn’t get an answer.”
Even John Almond and Coleman told DCF workers they were moving too fast. But once David and Michael moved in last March, it seemed like the couple wanted to keep them there — and they used the pandemic that coincided with the boys’ arrival to keep away those who could have taken the boys away.
It’s tempting to blame the COVID lockdown for what happened here: Social workers stopped or reduced in-person visits across the state, so they were unable to see for themselves what was really going on in that cramped apartment in Fall River. An in-person visit would almost certainly have saved David’s life. But virtual visits with the family were revealing, too. In them, Coleman openly coached David on what to say, berated him on camera, and prevented the boys from speaking freely; she complained that he was being aggressive, and had injured himself, clear signs that he was in distress. At one point, she told his team he was vomiting from eating too many snacks, and lying in his own vomit. In June, she reported that she and David’s father had physically restrained him, and — in a detail that will stay with me for a long time — that they had forced him to scrub the floor with a toothbrush.
The cavalry did not descend. Nor did it in August, when someone filed an anonymous abuse and neglect report against the parents, saying they were using drugs. DCF conducted another virtual visit, in which the adults claimed they were sober and workers took their word for it. Nobody seems to have noticed the boys were wasting away.
It makes you wonder about all of the other visits the state’s social workers haven’t done over the year since the pandemic began. Even as recently as January, my colleague Matt Stout reported, social workers were seeing only about half of the children under their watch in-person each month. With fewer eyes on kids, reports of abuse and neglect were also way down in 2020.
But there were plenty of eyes on the Almond boys. At least some of the folks involved in their lives did not act more aggressively because they assumed DCF had the situation in hand, which was surely not the case. Caseworkers kept looking past the parents’ transgressions, and even when they didn’t, their managers — two of whom were rightly fired after David’s death — ignored or overruled them.
State officials have promised better coordination between providers, more intensive services for disabled kids, and more scrutiny of DCF decisions in cases like these. That might help some kids. But how do we save kids like David Almond, for whom so very much went wrong?
How do we protect them from the inexplicable?