HARDWICK — A social worker with the state’s child protection agency visited the Hardwick home of a 7-year-old boy in late June, just two weeks before he fell into a coma after apparently being starved and dehydrated, state officials said Thursday.
The state’s Department of Children & Families said the boy and his father, who is charged with gravely abusing his son, “voluntarily” received services from the agency, and had been seen three times this month by staff from an authorized service provider. A social worker visited the home in this Central Massachusetts town June 29.
The boy was taken to the hospital July 14 with life-threatening injuries that included bruises to his face, and burns on his knees and hands from frequent exposure to bleach. He weighed 38 pounds.
His father, Randall E. Lints, 26, was arrested Tuesday on assault and endangerment charges, and ordered held without bail. Investigators found that Lints rarely let his son out of his sight and kept him in his room for days at a time. He exacted strict discipline and forced him to continuously wash the floors, police said.
DCF had become involved with the family in February, said agency spokeswoman Andrea Grossman. She declined to say whether the agency had received a report of abuse or neglect, or whether the social worker reported any such signs during the home visit.
DCF has taken custody of the boy, who remains hospitalized. The Globe is not naming the boy to protect his privacy.
A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker, Lizzy Guyton, said in an e-mail Thursday that he “is saddened by reports of this tragic situation and looks forward to authorities quickly addressing this case.”
A relative said she was devastated by the cruelty inflicted on the boy, and wondered how social workers assigned to the family could not have noticed.
“It’s really a sickening situation when you think about it,” she said. “We don’t feel they did a good job.”
Neighbors said Lints and his girlfriend had several children. DCF declined to comment on that assertion.
Questions about the handling of the case marked the first high-profile controversy concerning the social services agency since Baker took office this year. Last year, DCF came under intense criticism after acknowledging that a social worker assigned to a Fitchburg family had skipped eight mandatory monthly visits to the home. A 5-year-old boy, Jeremiah Oliver, was missing for months and later found dead.
The state budget Baker signed into law last week included an additional $37 million in funding for DCF.
In the Hardwick case, relatives said Thursday that they were horrified by the boy’s mistreatment, and several said they had never trusted Lints to care for him.
“It blows my mind that he would get custody,” said Samantha Chapman, the aunt of the boy’s mother. “He wasn’t even in his life.”
Chapman said she knew the boy as a happy child who loved to play and swim. She hadn’t seen him in more than a year, and had never met Lints.
“He just wanted to be a kid,” she said.
Jeannette Chapman, the boy’s great-grandmother, began crying as she described the youngster.
“He’s fun loving and creative,” she said. “He loves math. He loves to eat, too.”
The boy’s mother told WCVB-TV that “something could have been done” to protect him.
On Facebook, she wrote that her son’s injuries marked a “clear case of negligence on the state’s part.”
“This cannot keep happening to children,” she wrote.
For most of his life, the boy lived with his maternal grandmother. He had been told his father was dead, one relative said. The boy’s father was not named on his birth certificate, according to records. His mother, who was at one point in a residential program, was unable to care for the child, according to court records.
But two years ago, Lints became involved in his son’s life, seeking visitation rights and declaring he would seek custody “after he gets to know me as a father,” according to court records. In June 2014, Lints was granted sole custody of his son, with the boy’s mother allowed to visit every other Sunday, records say.
In Hardwick, neighbors said they sometimes heard screams from the father’s apartment.
Susan Casimiro, who lives one floor above Lints’s apartment, recalled seeing the boy on the staircase looking lost and timid. She said she never called police about the disturbances, but wishes now she had.
“All I can do now is picture his face in my head,” Casimiro said.
Police went to Lints’s home July 14 after receiving a 911 call that the child was unresponsive. The officer saw bruising on the boy’s head and jaw, and Lints said the child fell out of bed two days earlier, according to a police report.
Doctors found multiple bruises on his body that were inconsistent with a fall, and he had lost about 12 to 15 pounds in recent months. A nurse saw scarring and blistering on his feet that appeared to have been caused by a burn.
Lints’s lawyer declined to comment Thursday. Lints is due in East Brookfield District Court Wednesday for a hearing to determine whether he poses a danger if released.
Hardwick Police Lieutenant Kevin Landine said he expects authorities to release more information regarding the investigation. He said that even though Hardwick is a small town, Lints was “not someone that was really known to us.”
Court records show the boy was the subject of a fierce custody dispute.
In January 2013, the boy’s mother and maternal grand- father filed a petition to remove the child from his grandmother’s care, arguing she was “no longer fit to care for the child.”
The grandfather told the courts that the grandmother tried to isolate the child from his extended family and parents, and kept him away from family events beginning in 2011.
When the boy’s father got custody, the grandfather dropped the petition.
In April, Lints told the court that the boy had refused to visit his step-grandparents and had exhibited “major behavioral issues” and did not feel safe going on visits alone. Lints asked the court to remove the right to visit or restrict him to supervised visits until the boy saw a trauma specialist.
The grandfather backed off a contempt complaint in July that he had filed against Lints after the man prevented him from seeing the boy since December. He wrote that Lints had directed “threatening behavior” toward the boy, his family, and him.
The grandfather said he had been denied visits with his grandson and had been “challenged at every turn since his father Randy took custody.”
“I have been targeted as the scapegoat for [his] developmental issues, and for his reaction to a dramatic change in lifestyle,” he wrote. “Randy’s actions indicate he is threatened by, and hostile to, my involvement.”
Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com.