GRAFTON — State social workers overlooked for six days a police officer’s faxed complaint about potential danger to a Grafton newborn, and when a social worker finally investigated, she learned that the baby had died, say three people familiar with the case.
A Grafton police officer raised concerns to the Department of Children and Families April 3 about the safety of the daughter of Andrea Lavigne, who had lost custody of one child and had a history of mental health issues and psychotropic drug use, said an investigator with knowledge of the case.
But the supervisor in charge of monitoring faxed reports was off that week, and nobody was asked to perform those duties, said the people familiar with the case.
Four-week-old Aliana Lavigne died April 11 just as the state investigation began. Though the cause of death has not yet been determined, the mother, in an interview with WCVB-TV news earlier this week, said that the baby inexplicably stopped breathing while they slept together and that when emergency personnel arrived, her daughter was dead.
Officials at DCF, already under intense criticism for failing to protect a Fitchburg toddler who was found dead near a highway last week, have maintained that the department did nothing wrong in its handling of the Lavigne case.
In Lowell Friday, Governor Deval Patrick defended DCF’s role, saying the department was in “the middle of investigating” the Lavigne case when the death occurred. He said DCF has an “impossibly difficult job” with so much second-guessing of what they do.
The details of Aliana Lavigne’s case unfolded as state lawmakers said they hoped to add millions to the department’s budget to alleviate heavy caseloads faced by social services workers.
In explaining their role in the Lavigne case, DCF officials confirmed that the department’s Worcester office had received a report, called a 51A, about problems at the Lavigne home.
“The Department received a 51A report on this household and was in the process of conducting an investigation when this tragic incident occurred,” spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen said in a statement.
Isaksen went on to say that police officers, doctors, and others who are required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect “are required to verbally report” such allegations, not rely on written reports. Seasoned child-welfare specialists, however, say faxing remains fairly routine because the people mandated to make reports often believe a written record is superior to a phone call.
But two agency employees and one investigator, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak about the case, said they are troubled that the newborn was never visited by a state social worker. They said the mother’s history with DCF should have made the April 3 police complaint an emergency case that required a response within 24 hours, especially because it related to a newborn.
Lavigne struggled with mental illness and had a heavy dependence on prescription medications, said an investigator familiar with the case. About four years ago, she gave birth to a child, and DCF intervened after complaints about her care for that child. Ultimately, that child, now 4, was put into the custody of a grandparent, and the case involving the mother and that child was closed more than two years ago.
On March 10, Lavigne gave birth to Aliana and, upon discharge from the hospital, took her back to live in her Grafton apartment. In the ensuing weeks, at least one neighbor said he called police at least three times because of nonstop crying of the baby.
“The baby cried from the day [she] came home, every night and every morning, right up to the last day of [her] life,” said Bob Amyot, 66, who lives below Lavigne’s unit in the same apartment building.
He said Lavigne never appeared to try to comfort the baby. He also said that, about 10 months ago, a man who had been living briefly with Lavigne struck her during an argument. He said he later saw her talking outside with police.
About a week after Aliana was born, neighbors had already called the police with a complaint about the child’s crying, said two people familiar with the case reports.
Then on April 3, a Grafton police officer responded to another complaint about the baby’s crying. When police knocked on the door, they had trouble getting the attention of the mother, who ultimately appeared with the baby in her arms. Though the baby did not seem harmed, police filed a 51A report, which reflects the state law requiring mandated reporters to tell DCF of suspected cases of abuse or neglect, said the people with knowledge of the case.
Grafton police did not return phone calls Friday asking about the case or why they did not make a phone call to DCF in addition to faxing their report.
Ultimately, the fax was discovered April 9, people with knowledge of the case said. At that point, an intake staff member would review the report and would have access to the mother’s history with the agency.
That staff member assigned the case to a social worker on April 10, declining to designate it as an emergency case, which would require a visit within 24 hours, instead of within a few days, a person familiar with the case said. But the social worker was off April 10, and she started the investigation the following day, when emergency responders found the baby dead.
The Globe’s attempts to reach the mother Friday at her Grafton apartment were unsuccessful. A man who answered Lavigne’s door said she had retained a lawyer and would not be speaking to the press.
In the mother’s interview with WCVB, she said her child suffered from baby colic and was prone to fits of crying. She said that she herself was on “certain medications through the pregnancy” that the baby was withdrawing from. The mother told the television station that she has seizures and was on Klonopin, a drug often used to treat anxiety, while pregnant.
The newborn’s death comes after the agency has been under scrutiny for a number of other cases, including the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old whose body was found at the side of a highway in Sterling last week. When police realized he was missing in December, a state social worker, in charge of monitoring his troubled family, admitted she had failed to conduct mandatory monthly visitswith him since April.
DCF staff members have complained that crushing caseloads, among other things, have hampered their ability to do their job overseeing some 34,000 children in their caseloads.
In response, state Representative David P. Linsky, the Natick Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, said the House budget calls for funding that would drastically reduce the ratio of families to assigned social workers and allow more extensive background checks of foster families, among other steps.
He said the House Budget would tie the DCF reforms to a $32.6 million increase in state funding and insist on more frequent reports to the Legislature.
“We really did put in a lot more oversight for DCF than I’ve ever seen us do for any other state agency,” Linsky said.
DCF officials say the department is continuing its investigation of the death of Aliana. A longtime DCF staff member said that, though police should have also called DCF in the baby’s case, all staff members recognize that the fax machine is the source of many abuse and neglect reports.
“I can’t fathom an excuse,” the staff member said. “It was an error. How can you miss something like this for multiple days?”
This staff member said the supervisors clearly feel some responsibility, noting that all workers in the Worcester office of DCF, which oversaw the Lavigne case, received an e-mail this week emphasizing the critical importance of checking reports on fax machines, at least hourly.