Allegations of child abuse outside of children's homes rose by 16 percent in Massachusetts in 2013, according to a new state report, providing fresh incentive for Governor-elect Charlie Baker and his administration to keep the focus on vulnerable children after a tumultuous year for child welfare officials.
The 40-page report from the state Office of the Child Advocate found there were 538 supported allegations of abuse and neglect of children in settings such as foster homes, day care, and schools in 2013, compared with 465 allegations in 2012.
Gail Garinger, head of the Office of the Child Advocate, said her annual report underscored the need for a larger web of state officials and advocates to be involved in protecting children beyond the embattled Department of Children and Families.
"We are obviously concerned that kids [who] are already vulnerable are subjected to further abuse or neglect,'' Garinger said in an interview. "Not one of us can do it all."
The Department of Children and Families has been under intense scrutiny since the high-profile disappearance and death of 4-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, whose body was discovered in April 2014 along a central Massachusetts highway months after his disappearance. His mother faces charges of child abuse.
The subsequent controversy led to the resignation of the DCF commissioner, Olga Roche. Governor Deval Patrick increased the agency's budget this year by $14.2 million to $827 million in order to hire more social workers and supervisors and instill other improvements.
Erin Deveney, interim DCF commissioner, said last week in a written statement that the agency already has hired 548 new social workers, supervisors, and managers since January, and she looks forward to "continuing this progress over the coming years."
The agency has 269 more social workers on staff than it did earlier this year, state officials said.
Billy Pitman, a spokesman for Baker's transition office, said in a written statement Tuesday that the governor-elect "values the advice and recommendations of the Office of the Child Advocate and the important role the office plays in keeping our children safe."
Pitman said Marylou Sudders, Baker's Health and Human Services secretary-designate, has worked closely with the office and "will continue to recruit strong leaders to take on the challenges at hand in order to protect Massachusetts' most vulnerable."
Garinger joins a growing number of public officials and child advocates putting pressure on Baker to focus on children's issues when he takes office in January.
Earlier this month, an appeals court judge upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit against the Department of Children and Families, but highlighted the need for the state to make improvements in the way officials protect vulnerable children.
"The plaintiffs have articulated convincing moral arguments that Massachusetts should do better," Chief Judge Sandra Lynch wrote in the ruling.
"Improvements in the system must come through the normal state political processes. The problems are now for the Governor and legislature of Massachusetts to resolve."
Garinger's report, released earlier this month, is a stark reminder of the dangers faced by at-risk children.
Among its findings, the Office of the Child Advocate said it received 98 "critical incident reports" last year involving children getting state services who died or were seriously injured, compared with 88 reports in 2012.
Last year's deaths included two infants who were killed by caretakers, three children who drowned in swimming pools or ponds, and a 2-year-old who strangled in the straps of her car seat, the report said. A 15-year-old girl died by hanging herself, according to the report.
Ten babies also died in what appeared to be Sudden Unexpected Infant Death, a category including suffocation and unexplained causes, the report said. Of the five confirmed by medical examiner's office, each died in what is considered "unsafe sleep" situations, which puts children more at risk of sudden death, including sharing a bed with an adult or sleeping on their bellies, the report said.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this year found that children in homes supervised by state social workers die unexpectedly at a rate at least twice that of infants statewide.
To prevent future deaths, the Office of the Child Advocate released a series of recommendations including better education of parents about safe sleep practices and funding of a state-mandated child fatality review program that looks for ways to make children safer.
Eli Newberger, a child abuse expert and pediatrician, said he was frustrated that the advocate's report did not take an even stronger stance on the "appalling budgetary limitations" that hamper the state's ability to analyze child deaths.
He said the advocate's office, which reports directly to the governor, should be allowed to be more independent, a change that would need to be done through legislation.
"In my opinion, this office should be . . . free to express conflictual opinions, and go to bat for children much more aggressively,'' Newberger said.
"Other states, and many other countries where children's rights are in the forefront, have done this."
Laurie Myers, a child advocate who sits on a transition team committee meant to help the Baker administration set priorities for the new year, said she plans to keep beating the drum for doing more to help vulnerable children.
"We can't just throw money at the issue,'' she said. "There needs to be systematic changes."
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (www.necir.org) is a nonprofit news outlet based at Boston University and WGBH-TV and Radio in Boston. Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at email@example.com.