Her computer-generated image had haunted Greater Boston residents all summer. Now the little girl whose body was found on Deer Island might come to haunt the beleaguered state Department of Children and Families, too.
Governor Charlie Baker and the agency tasked with protecting children from harm acknowledged Friday that the girl, Bella, had twice in her young life been under the supervision of state social workers. Her mother had lost custody of two other children before Bella was born, DCF said.
Now, her mother, Rachelle Bond, has been charged with being an accessory after the fact while Bond's boyfriend, Michael McCarthy, 35, has been charged with Bella's murder.
"Now that we know her name, the story is no less tragic," said Rhonda Mann, director of communications for the Executive Office of Health & Human Services.
The department intended to serve as a safety net for vulnerable children has faced withering scrutiny in recent months, as shocking abuse cases exposed ongoing gaps in a system that the new governor is grappling to fix. In July, a 7-year-old Hardwick boy fell into a coma after his father allegedly starved and beat him — despite the oversight of a raft of social workers and concerned adults, according to a report released earlier this month. A 2-year-old, Avalena Conway-Coxon, died in August in the foster home where she'd been sent for care by DCF. A second foster child living there was also found unresponsive.
And just last week, the state received a report finding its child welfare agency woefully inadequate, lacking in both the resources and personnel to protect children as intended. Lawmakers had commissioned the management review following the death of yet another child under DCF care: Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg boy, had gone missing in December 2013 after social workers failed to make regular visits to his home.
Bella was not under DCF supervision at the time of her death, and she had not been for more than two years, Mann noted.
But DCF had twice come to investigate suspicions of neglect and twice stepped in to provide support, Mann said.
The first case occurred just after her birth in August 2012. Her mother was living in a shelter at the time.
The case was closed in December 2012. But the next summer, suspicion of neglect again brought social workers back to Bella, providing services from June until September 2013, Mann said.
It was unclear what exactly had triggered the investigations or why DCF discontinued supervision of the family. Mann declined to provide any further details, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Bella's mother had lost custody of two older children between 2001 and 2006. One of those children remains with a maternal grandmother, DCF said, and another was adopted by an unrelated family.
Massachusetts Citizens for Children executive director Jetta Bernier said she would not rush to judgment against DCF. She noted that a Facebook video from Bella's second birthday shows a child physically cared for and a mother trying hard.
"It may be that the last time they saw this family that the child was in good health and was being well cared for," Bernier said.
While the agency's involvement suggests concern, Bernier said, "they made an assessment that the child was, apparently, not suffering from the kind of neglect that would have required them to remove the child."
"They don't have a carte blanche to continually be engaging themselves when the family appears, from their perspective, to be functioning in an OK way," she added.
She also noted that Bella's home life might have changed with the arrival of McCarthy.
A neighbor told the Globe that the child went missing around the time that a new boyfriend moved in with her mother.
Perhaps, Bernier said, "when this boyfriend moved in, things started to change."
One study found that children under 5 living in homes with the mother's boyfriends or other unrelated adults are nearly 50 times more likely to die from abuse than children living with married parents, Bernier said.
As a result, she said, her organization is advising women to take a critical look at their partners' treatment of their children: Does he insult the child? Tell her that the child is a nuisance or annoying? Think it's funny to scare the child?