Forget the balloons, stuffed animals, and candlelight vigils to mourn little Bella Bond.
A true sign of caring would be a commitment to reforming state child protection practices fast enough to save another child’s life — and a willingness to pay for it.
Governor Charlie Baker is calling for the state Department of Children and Families to review its involvement with the little girl whose body was found in a trash bag in June, and known as Baby Doe, until she was just finally identified as 2½-year-old Bella.
The details are worth learning. But Baker already knows the underlying problems: outdated policies, overwhelmed social workers, and underfunding over time.
He told us that a year ago when he was running for governor and promised to manage the agency out of its downward spiral. Under Baker, funding is up to prerecession levels of a little more than $900 million. But the caseload is up too.
A state report released this month concerning Jack Loiselle — a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who remains in a long-term care facility after being starved and beaten by his father — documented the systemic failings of an agency that once again could not protect a child from lethal harm. Another Baker-ordered review is pending on the agency’s handling of a case involving 2-year-old Avalena Conway-Coxon, who died, and a 22-month-old who was found in critical condition in the same DCF-licensed foster home.
There are many more documented tragedies. According to a report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, there are at least 110 children whose deaths were linked to abuse and neglect between 2009 and 2013. About a third had been under the watch of DCF. Others were known to the state but never put under its protection, the report stated.
Michael McCarthy has been charged with Bella Bond’s murder. Rachelle Bond, her mother, has been charged as an accessory. The mother lost custody of two other children before Bella was born. She twice came under DCF scrutiny for alleged neglect of Bella — from the child’s birth in August 2012 to the following December, and from June until September 2013. Then the case was closed. For that reason, DCF did not check back with this family when the dead child washed up on Deer Island.
Only families connected to “open” cases were contacted as investigators tried to identify the girl. Yet, given the agency’s past involvement with Bond, “How could the state not know ‘Baby Doe’?” asked Susan Zalkind in The Daily Beast.
Good question. Hopefully, the Baker-ordered review will address it. Until then, we can only speculate as to why no one ever connected the computer-generated image of Baby Doe to the real-life child named Bella. For social workers, maybe there are just too many tiny, sad-eyed girls to remember, not to mention too many drug-addled mothers in relationships with equally drug-addled men.
When it comes to risk, to some degree it’s a classic gamble. Bella died in her mother’s custody. Little Avalena, who was taken from a mom with a drug addiction problem, died in foster care. Still, based on research by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Massachusetts needs to update its risk-assessment and intake systems. The current system divides children into high-risk and low-risk categories and assigns the less risky cases to workers with lower training requirements.
Shouldn’t Massachusetts require a high level of training for all case workers – and be willing to pay for it, as well as pay for more social workers as a way to lower the overall caseload burden?
We could and should — if we truly want to honor Bella’s memory.