More than 180 children were abused or neglected while in state custody last year, according to a report released Tuesday that provides fresh evidence of the troubles besetting the state child welfare system.
Most of the children — 117 — were abused or neglected in foster homes licensed by the state Department of Children and Families, while another 53 were in group homes overseen by the department.
The remaining 14 children were in schools, child-care centers, or hospitals, according to the report by the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent state agency, which sought for the first time to quantify the mistreatment of children in DCF custody.
All told, DCF investigated and substantiated about 630 allegations of abuse and neglect — sometimes multiple allegations involving mistreatment of a single child — in foster homes and other “out-of-home settings” last year, the report found.
That represents an 18 percent increase from 2013, when 538 allegations of mistreatment were substantiated, and a 36 percent increase from 2012, when 465 allegations were found to be valid.
The report also documented 40 children who died last year while receiving services from state health and human services agencies, up from 29 in 2013. Officials said not all of the deaths, however, appeared to point directly to problems with the child welfare system. Many of the deaths, for instance, were the result of car accidents, terminal illnesses, or congenital defects and other common causes of child fatalities.
State officials pointed out that the 184 children who were abused and neglected last year represented 1.2 percent of the children in foster care, group homes, and other similar settings. Nonetheless, the officials said they were working to reduce instances of neglect and abuse by hiring a medical director for DCF and teaching parenting skills.
“Any supported allegation of abuse or neglect of a child in the department’s care is one too many,” said Andrea Grossman, a DCF spokeswoman.
Gail Garinger, who heads the Office of the Child Advocate, called the rising abuse and neglect figures very concerning, but said it was not clear whether the increase represented an actual spike in abuse cases or simply the result of increased reporting of such cases because of heightened awareness of the issue.
DCF was under intense scrutiny last year after it acknowledged that it failed to conduct regular home visits and lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg boy whose body was later found on the side of a highway.
This year, the agency is grappling with record high caseloads and a pair of recent tragedies. In July, a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who was under DCF watch fell into a coma after his father allegedly beat him and refused to provide him with food and water.
Officials have acknowledged that a DCF worker visited the boy’s home two weeks before the child, who had lost 12 to 15 pounds in recent weeks, lost consciousness and his father called 911.
Last month, a 2-year-old girl died and a 22-month-old was found in dire condition in an Auburn foster home, just three days after a DCF worker visited the home. Officials are still investigating that case and have not filed any charges.
“Review of these reports has impressed upon the child advocate and the OCA staff the importance of screening, training, and supervising our child-serving workforce and adopting a trauma-informed approach to care,” Garinger wrote in her report.
Last week, five child welfare groups, including the Children’s League of Massachusetts and Citizens for Juvenile Justice, released a joint statement urging Governor Charlie Baker to accelerate the search for a replacement for Garinger, who is stepping down Sept. 11.
“The impending departure of state child advocate Gail Garinger threatens to leave a vital watchdog position unfilled and puts Massachusetts children at risk,” the statement said.
Garinger, a 69-year-old former juvenile court judge, has been child advocate since April 2008, shortly after the office was created by Governor Deval Patrick following a spate of high-profile child abuse cases.
Child welfare groups say the report released Tuesday underscores why the office is vital to shining a light on the treatment of children under the state’s care.
The office, which has a $600,000 budget and four staff members, has a wide-ranging mission. Armed with subpoena power, it can investigate cases of abuse and can also examine systemic problems in the child welfare system and recommend improvements. “The OCA is the one office that has as its mandate advocating for the interests of our children, speaking up when the agencies and persons charged with protecting them fall short, and encouraging them to place the interests of children before the preferences and desires of adults,” said Garinger, who has acknowledged the grueling demands of the job and is pursuing a new role in child protection.
Baker administration officials say they will have a replacement named by Sept. 11, but may still need to appoint an interim leader before the permanent head can take over.
If the interim leader is a state official, that could raise concerns among child welfare advocates because the office is investigating DCF’s handling of the Auburn and Hardwick cases and is designed to operate without oversight from the governor’s office.
A nominating committee of child welfare specialists, state officials, and medical professionals finished interviewing six candidates for the permanent post last week, leaving Baker to choose from three finalists in the coming days.
“Judge Garinger leaves big shoes to fill — which is a compliment to her as the child advocate,” said Marylou Sudders, Baker’s health and human services secretary and a former president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Garinger said she believes parents, judges, and others know they can contact her with “not only the hope, but the expectation that someone with some measure of status and authority will try to speak for and act on behalf of the child.”
The child advocate handles that role while undertaking investigations into abuse cases and promoting better policies to protect children, said Carol J. Trust, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
“They are the spokespeople and the neutral stewards of what’s going in child welfare,” said Trust, who is a member of the committee that is nominating the new child advocate. “It’s a voice of independence and objectivity to combat the hysteria.”