Metro

Baker says state will review DCF handling of Auburn child

AUBURN — Since 2008, police and emergency personnel have responded to more than two dozen 911 calls at the home where a 2-year-old foster child died over the weekend, officials said Monday, as Governor Charlie Baker launched an investigation into the latest tragedy involving children under the care of the state child welfare system.

The calls — 28 in all — reported assaults, threats, breaking and entering, a domestic disturbance, and medical emergencies. Police and emergency personnel responded to an additional 35 calls at the two homes in Auburn where the foster mother lived between 2004 and 2008.

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Marylou Sudders, the state secretary of health and human services, pointed out that most of the calls were made before the mother became a foster parent, in March 2014. But she said officials will consider whether 911 calls to a home should be part of the standard background check conducted on foster parents, a review that currently involves a home inspection and criminal history search.

Baker, who campaigned on a promise to revamp the troubled child welfare system, said more money was needed to contend with the Department of Children and Families’ soaring caseloads, which have reached an all-time high, up 30 percent since December 2013.

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“I’m not going to be satisfied until we get to the point where this sort of thing doesn’t happen. Period,” said the governor, who is suddenly contending with the second major crisis at DCF in a month. “This has my highest priority,” he said.

Officials have completed an autopsy, but have not determined the cause of death of the 2-year-old, named Avalena. A 22-month-old foster child, who was also taken from the home Saturday, remains in critical condition, officials said.

A 6-month-old foster child, who was taken from the home and hospitalized as a precaution, has been released into DCF custody. The mother’s three other children — two biological and one adopted — were also taken into state custody and are in good condition.

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DCF rules allow up to six children in a foster home, and Sudders said the department had not received warnings about the foster family until Saturday, when police responded to a 911 call reporting “breathing problems.”

As they search for answers, officials disclosed Monday that the mother’s boyfriend was not registered with DCF as a person having interaction with the family. Under state rules, foster parents must notify the department if anyone older than 15 is living in, or spending significant time in, their home.

Officials said it is not clear how much time the boyfriend spent with the children. Five neighbors interviewed Monday said they did not believe he lived there; one said he would spend time with the mother when the children went to day care. He was arrested in March after he and another woman allegedly pried $24 from a person’s hand in Worcester, court records show. That case is pending in Worcester District Court.

The foster mother obtained a restraining order against the father of her two biological children in 2009, after saying she feared he would “act and take” the children away from her.

The foster mother and her children were being monitored by 10 DCF supervisors, managers, and frontline case workers, but officials acknowledged Monday that three of them were not licensed.

Two of those without licenses worked directly with the 2-year-old who died and the 22-month old who is in critical condition. The third unlicensed worker made the final visit to the family’s home Wednesday. One of the unlicensed workers is retiring, officials said, and the other two are slated to take the licensing exam. Veteran employees had until July 1 to get a license, and new hires have a year from their start date.

DCF has been under intense scrutiny since 2013, when state social workers lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg boy whose body was found on the side of a highway last year.

Last month, a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who was under DCF watch was nearly killed, allegedly by his father who police say beat him and refused him food and water. A DCF worker had visited the boy’s home just two weeks before the child, who had lost 12 to 15 pounds in recent weeks, fell into a coma and his father called 911.

The Auburn case has renewed concerns about the foster-care system, which a federal judge chastised in 2013 for failing thousands of foster children whose futures in Massachusetts he called “murkier than in most places in America.”

The judge, William G. Young, found that DCF had “failed not only to comport with national standards of care and state and federal requirements, but also to comply with its own internal policies” for protecting children in foster care.

Young issued his ruling as he dismissed a class-action lawsuit against DCF, but he said he was disturbed that it places children in inappropriate foster homes, lacks proper educational and medical services, and has subpar caseload management and training practices.

The agency’s failings, Young said, were “more about budgetary shortfalls than management myopia” and added: “We are all complicit in this financial failure.”

Despite that harsh assessment, which became a major point of contention in last year’s governor’s race, DCF is still plagued by a lack of foster homes, inadequate training for foster parents, and insufficient services to help foster children thrive, said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts.

“The current health of the foster care system is not well,” Bradley said.

The 2-year-old’s biological mother, Jessica A. Conway, has struggled with drug addiction and was released from South Middlesex Correctional Center in Framingham on Aug. 9.

Ronald Green, the child’s biological father, attempted to gain custody of the girl last September, according to custody documents. The case was dismissed when neither party appeared in court. It was the second time he had missed a court appearance following a petition for custody of the girl.

Speaking Monday with Conway at his side, Green said he had not been involved in his daughter’s life because he had been in jail as a result of his drug problems. He faulted DCF for placing the girl in a home with a history of 911 calls.

“If you’re well known to the police, why would you give custody to children, little children, any children at that?” he said, according to WCVB-TV. “I really think they need to investigate more where they put these children.”

Conway was critical of the way DCF handled visits with her daughter while she was in jail, telling the Globe on Sunday that a social worker logged some visits that never took place.

DCF declined to comment on the allegations Monday, but a spokeswoman said the department takes visitation rights seriously and trains its workers to follow all protocols.

Conway said she wants someone to be held accountable for her daughter’s death.

“I will never be able to hold my daughter again, and it’s because of this foster home,” she said Monday, holding back tears. “It hurts unbelievably.”

Peter Schworm of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jennifer Smith contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at Michael.Levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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