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Child deaths under state’s watch fall, but new data raise more questions

DCF commissioner Linda Spears spoke at a press conference while Governor Charlie Baker (second from left) looked on.
DCF commissioner Linda Spears spoke at a press conference while Governor Charlie Baker (second from left) looked on. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File/2015/Globe Staff

The number of children dying while under the state’s watch has fallen to its lowest level in the past five years, according to new data from the Baker administration, but child advocates say the information raises as many questions as it answers.

The new numbers — released in response to a request from the Globe after three deaths — show 34 children died in the past fiscal year, from July 2018 through June, down from 48 the previous year, and 52 in 2015.

But beyond that, the Department of Children and Families, which has faced criticism from advocates for a lack of transparency, could provide few details, including how many of the 34 died as a result of neglect or abuse. The department said it is still reviewing that data.

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The department did say that eight of the children who died were in state custody, which typically means they were in foster care or a group home. But it was unable to say how that number compared with years past.

Without more details, advocates said, it’s unclear how to interpret the decline in the number of child deaths after increases the past two years.

“Standing alone, it is hard to know what these numbers mean,” said Jane Lyons, executive director of Friends of Children. “If DCF was working with the families of any of these children, it would be important to understand in what capacity, what services were needed, and what was provided.”

The data come as authorities continue to investigate the deaths of three children since April in the department’s care. The deaths, which are still under review by the state medical examiner, include a 4-week-old Haverhill boy in mid-April who was being monitored by DCF; a 3-month-old boy in Methuen in foster care; and a 15-month-old girl in Lawrence who was also in foster care.

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The Globe also requested information from DCF about the deaths of all children in Massachusetts who were determined to have died by abuse or neglect during the past two fiscal years.

But the department tracks that data differently — by calendar year rather than fiscal year. And citing confidentiality rules, the department does not release the dates of those deaths, making it impossible to compare or align the numbers with those of children who died while under DCF care.

Gail Garinger, the state’s former child advocate who left in 2015, said she understands how challenging it can be to balance state and federal confidentiality rules with the need to be transparent; she struggled with that, too, when she was in office.

“But all too often, the confidentiality ‘card’ has been held out as a total barrier to releasing almost any information about deaths of children with DCF involvement,” she said.

The data that DCF did release about all child abuse and neglect deaths show a total of 16 in 2018, including two who were being managed by DCF: a one-month-old infant boy and a three-month-old girl.

Of the 16 deaths, a quarter were due to unsafe sleeping practices, such as a parent sleeping with an infant. The state last October launched a public awareness campaign that includes safety training for state employees that work with families. It also featured advertising on Facebook and YouTube and signs on public transit in areas with the highest rates of sudden unexpected infant deaths, including Boston, New Bedford, and Fall River.

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“A death of a child is a tragedy and DCF thoroughly investigates each and every case to better understand any risk factors that may have led to a child’s death,” the department said in a statement about its latest child death data.

It noted that the agency provides services and support to approximately 45,000 children under the age of 18 and their families.

The statement did not directly address questions about its transparency, but noted that DCF commissioner Linda Spears cochairs a task force, created by lawmakers, to develop more timely and complete data on the welfare of children and families in DCF care. It said the group’s work “will produce data and reports that are more user friendly to a broad stakeholder community interested in child welfare.”

In 2001, the state created a Child Fatality Review program, charged with reviewing child deaths and near-fatalities and crafting recommendations for how to decrease serious injuries and deaths. Local review teams, under each county’s district attorney’s office, collect and review data and present recommendations to a state-wide team.

But last year, the state’s Child Advocate issued a report that found state team members were unclear about their mission, plagued by communication problems with local teams, and lacked sufficient state funding.

Only half the team members said their work had a “positive impact on policy and program changes to reduce child deaths,” the report found.

The state health department, which co-hosts the Child Fatality Review team, said it has since created guidelines to clarify its mission for members, updated its review process, and improved communication with local teams. The Child Advocate’s office has provided additional funding for the teams from its own budget, but intends to seek new funding in the next fiscal year.

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Mary McGeown, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said part of the challenge in getting timely state data about child deaths is that DCF must rely on law enforcement and the chronically backlogged medical examiner’s office to determine how a child died, which adds to the delays.

“At the same time, we need to review these deaths to see if they were preventable, or there is a pattern, which is why it’s so important the information is available in a timely way,” McGeown said. “These families deserve to know what happened.”

The Globe initially requested the child death data on June 28, after the Essex County district attorney announced the three DCF deaths. The data is information the department is already required to track. State public records law requires a response within 10 business days. Two weeks later, DCF said the request for data “would unduly burden DCF and interfere with its other responsibilities.” It said it needed another week to produce the information. The agency finally released the data on Tuesday.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.