The state Department of Children and Families failed to properly investigate two previous warnings that Bella Bond was being neglected and should not have closed her case in 2013, nearly two years before the girl’s body was found on Deer Island, according to a sharply critical report released Wednesday.
The lack of scrutiny given to the case was striking because the girl’s mother, Rachelle Bond, had a long history of arrests, had been in prison at least 12 times, had struggled with drug addiction, and had two previous children taken away by DCF, said the report by the Office of the Child Advocate.
In perhaps the most glaring finding, the report said that the evaluation that led the department to close the case in September 2013 “contained cut-and-pasted information” from years-old reports on Rachelle Bond, including information from 2006, six years before Bella was born.
Maria Z. Mossaides, the new head of the Office of the Child Advocate, said the report, which is the latest to expose major problems at DCF, pointed to systemic weaknesses as well as failures by individual workers.
While she made recommendations to strengthen the agency, she pointedly avoided harsh condemnations of DCF, saying the department is taking steps to improve its oversight of abused and neglected children.
“It’s impossible for anyone to say that continued involvement with the department would have prevented the tragedy in this case,” she told reporters.
State officials said no one at DCF would be disciplined or fired as a result of this case. Other deaths of children on the department’s watch have led to dismissals.
“The unfortunate loss of this child and other recent child tragedies represent systemic failures and have resulted in a complete and full agency reform, which is underway,” said Rhonda Mann, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Bella’s death drew widespread attention this summer after her body was found in a bag on Deer Island, sparking a nationwide campaign to identify the remains of a child dubbed “Baby Doe.”
The search ended last month after a tipster contacted Boston Police, leading authorities to Bond’s home in Mattapan. Bond’s boyfriend, Michael McCarthy, 35, who has a history of drug addiction, was charged with killing the 2-year-old, and Bond, 40, was charged with covering up the killing. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The report on DCF’s history with Bella is likely to fuel questions about the agency’s ability to properly evaluate which children are truly at risk.
The review noted that Rachelle Bond was often homeless or in prison, and had a criminal history dating back to 1994, with “arrests too numerous to list in this report.” DCF had terminated Bond’s parental rights to her two previous children, years before Bella was born.
Yet when the agency received reports that Bond was neglecting Bella, after she was born in August 2012 and again in June 2013, the agency provided services for only two 45-day periods, and then closed the case in September 2013.
At the time, DCF workers reported that Bella was “happy and well-cared for by Ms. Bond,” the report said.
“However, her past history of arrests, substance abuse, mental health issues, instability and the termination of parental rights for two other children should have triggered higher-level conferences at DCF, and closer attention,” the report said. “DCF’s knowledge of her history should have also dictated the need to thoroughly check recent information from all known collaterals and not rely on Ms. Bond’s own statements.”
The report said there were also “mixed messages” in 2012 and 2013 about Bond’s ability to parent Bella.
That conflicting information should have triggered a careful review of the girl’s case by DCF managers, the report said. Yet the agency never conducted that review.
The report also found that DCF failed to gather sufficient information from other agencies that were working with Bond, and collected minimal, if any, family and personal information from Bond.
DCF may have had a “false sense of security” that Bella would be safe because Bond was living at the time in a shelter and had been under the supervision of a probation officer. That means there would have been other people interacting with Bella and her mother who could report any abuse to DCF, the report said.
But in fact, Bond had recently been discharged from probation and was working with a housing specialist to find an apartment, which should have raised concerns that there would be no one other than the mother watching the child. However, DCF did not note this fact when it closed her case in 2013.
As such, the case was closed “based on faulty information,” the report said, “and no managerial oversight of the decision to close the case is indicated in the DCF record.”
In October 2013, DCF, under fire following the deaths of several young children under its care, undertook a systemwide review of all cases of children under 5. But the agency took only a cursory look at Bella’s case, the report said.
Managers were simply not aware there was any reason for concern because Bella’s case had been closed based on faulty information, the report said.
“Because the 2013 assessment contained cut-and-pasted information from prior years and was inaccurate, the managers conducting the review did not have current or accurate information to assess risk to the family,” the report said.
The report recommended that DCF change its policies to require managers and department lawyers to review any reports of abuse or neglect involving a parent whose previous children have been taken away.
The report also said that, if dated information is used in parental evaluations, it must be properly labeled so that DCF managers know that it is old.
Governor Charlie Baker, who commissioned the report, said Wednesday, before the review was released, that he was “very anxious” to read it and study its recommendations.
“This report will help inform the process the administration has already begun in coordination with front-line social workers to reduce caseloads, retain and recruit social workers, and ensure clear and concise policies for supervision and case management — supporting the Department of Children and Families’ mission to keep kids safe,” said Billy Pitman, a Baker spokesman, after the report was released.