It’s worse than the Jeremiah Oliver case.
The latest tragedy to befall a child under the watch of the state’s child welfare agency reveals a truth even more distressing than what we learned about Oliver, the Fitchburg boy who was missing for months and later found dead after a DCF social worker failed to make required visits to his home.
It’s one thing for a child to perish after those assigned to keep him safe fail to do their jobs. Even more grim: That a child could be tortured even while being supervised by a cohort of workers who showed up to check on him as they were supposed to.
That’s what happened to the 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma after his father allegedly beat, starved, and dehydrated him. Social service workers had visited him four times in the two weeks before his father reported him unconscious.
It’s hard to fathom how the boy ended up in that run-down building by the railway line in the first place. His family fought over him, drawing him into their bitter disputes with one another, according to court documents. He lived with his mother for his first two years; then, when she was unable to care for him, he went to his grandmother for the next five. His grandfather, estranged from his wife, claimed she isolated the boy from the rest of the family, and that she was not fit to be his guardian. He and the boy’s mother tried to have him removed from her care.
The wrangling over the child took a fateful turn last summer. His father, Randall Lints, requested custody. The grandmother did not fight it, and it’s not clear whether anybody else protested. And so a Worcester Probate and Family court judge awarded custody to Lints, a profoundly limited, deeply troubled 26-year-old man the boy barely knew and had never lived with, whose only qualification as a parent was a positive paternity test.
There were other options. Seeing the long history of disputes among the boy’s relatives, and the late entry of Lints into his life, the court could have appointed a guardian to represent the child’s interests, and monitor whether Lints could care for him.
There is no indication that anything like that happened. And so the 7-year-old went to live with someone entirely new to him, someone we now know was truly unwell.
But the child was not entirely alone. He was seeing a counselor, as the court required. And in February, the DCF, which had been involved with the boy several times previously, began closer supervision after he missed an appointment with his therapist.
The child had emotional and physical challenges that would test a patient and experienced parent. Lints was clearly neither. And summer meant no school — no rest from the hell at home, which clearly escalated rapidly.
A social worker and three workers for other child welfare agencies went into the home four times between June 29 and July 9 to instruct Lints on how to feed and more gently discipline the child.
The boy was taken to the hospital July 14, with bruises on his face, and burns on his hands and knees from frequent exposure to bleach, after his father apparently made him clean the floors repeatedly.
It all happened under the watchful eyes of social service workers, who saw plenty to disturb them in that home, but not enough, in their judgment, to remove the child.
In the next month or two, we will learn exactly how that was possible. So far, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration is taking a measured approach.
“We’re neither defending nor blaming anyone at this point,” said his spokesman, Tim Buckley. “We’re trying to get the full story.”
Two DCF reviews now underway will reveal what went wrong here. Recriminations and reforms will follow, as they always do.
And we’ll be left with this grim reality: That a child surrounded by so many people could be utterly alone in his agony.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.