The deaths of three children in separate incidents since mid-April, all while in the care of the state’s child protection agency, are under investigation by the Essex district attorney’s office, officials said Thursday.
The deaths come amid a push to beef up child protection services at the state’s Department of Children and Families, which has struggled with high caseloads for swamped social workers, a severe lack of foster families, and archaic technology to track children in state custody.
But officials said the causes of death for the three children have not yet been established by the office of the chief medical examiner. A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said that it is required by law to investigate such cases and that its involvement “should not in any way indicate that these deaths are criminal or not.”
“We are conducting investigations and we consider and look at ALL of the evidence to determine what happened. Nothing is ruled in or out,’’ Carrie Kimball, a spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, wrote in an e-mail that included some words in capital letters for emphasis. “It is PREMATURE to SPECULATE as to how any of these children died until the Medical Examiner makes their ruling, which you should all know by now, takes time.”
The first death happened on April 18, when emergency services were called to the Haverhill home where a 4-week-old boy lived. He was rushed to Holy Family Hospital in Haverhill, where he was pronounced dead.
“There was an open DCF case involving this child at the time of death,’’ Kimball said.
A week later, on April 25, a 3-month-old boy in the care of a DCF foster parent in Methuen died after being rushed to Holy Family Hospital in Methuen.
And on Sunday, a 15-month-old girl in foster care in Lawrence was rushed to Lawrence General Hospital and died a short time later.
Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, said in a statement that the Essex County deaths were “tragic.”
Sudders said DCF is working with the Essex district attorney’s office to investigate the deaths. She said her office believes, pending the final medical examiner’s report, that the death of the infant in Haverhill appears to be an accident. The infant was not in foster care but was being monitored by DCF and was living with his biological parent in a shelter, and his death appears to be a result of “co-sleeping,” Sudders said.
Sudders added that the death of the infant in a foster home in Methuen appears to be the result of a “medical condition.”
A source familiar with the case, who asked to remain anonymous because the person was not authorized to speak publicly, said that there appeared to be no foul play involved in the Methuen case and that the foster parent did everything she could to help the infant in the incident.
As for the death of the 15-month-old girl in a foster home in Lawrence, Sudders said there is an active and ongoing investigation, and it was too soon to determine the cause of death. There were three other children living in that home with the toddler and they have since been removed and placed in state custody, according to the source.
A spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker referred questions to DCF.
“DCF staff were actively engaged in this [Lawrence] foster home,” said Adriana Zwick, chapter president of the Service Employees International Union Local 509, the union that represents DCF workers. “They were seeing the foster parents and seeing the children in the home as recently as [last] Friday. They had an appointment made previously for last Tuesday, just for a routine visit.”
But the little girl died on Sunday, before that appointment.
Kimball said her office is also investigating the deaths of two other children, both in Methuen, who did not have any connection to the state’s child protection agency. Those cases involve an 8-month-old boy who died on May 1, and a 5-month-old boy with significant congenital medical issues who died June 15.
In May, the Baker administration and the union for front-line DCF social workers announced a series of reforms aimed at helping children under the agency’s care.
Zwick said the union has been working with the Baker administration, particularly on workloads for social workers. But she said the caseload for the worker involved in the Lawrence incident did not appear to be a factor.
Caseloads had played a critical role in DCF child deaths several years ago, prompting an earlier round of changes and hiring by the Baker administration in 2015.
The changes announced in May were targeted at six key areas to support DCF-involved children and foster families, including revising DCF’s foster care policy and practice; continuing to increase and retain quality foster homes; increasing support for, and communication with, foster parents; expanding short-term child care for children and youth; modernizing DCF’s IT systems to ensure social workers have real-time information; and beefing up behavioral health access and in-home supports.
The child welfare agency serves about 45,000 children under 18 and their families statewide, and 80 percent of those children live at home, while the remaining 20 percent are placed in foster care, according to state officials.
Child deaths in DCF care are a tiny percentage of all those in state care. State data show 48 children in DCF care died last year, and 40 in 2017. One of the most common causes of deaths for children in state care under the age of 3 is Sudden Unexpected Infant Death linked to unsafe sleeping environments, according to the state’s Office of Child Advocate.
DCF did not provide the total number of children in state care who have died so far this year.