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State Launches Investigation Into Death Of Child In Foster Home


The Massachusetts child welfare agency is under scrutiny once again following the death of a 2-year - old child who was in a foster home.  Governor Charlie Baker said improving the Department of Children and Families is his top priority.

Baker, who campaigned on a promise to reform the state’s child welfare agency, launched an investigation Monday into the foster care case, calling it “tragic and frustrating to us all.”

" This has my highest priority," Baker said.  " I pay attention to kids. I pay attention to issues that involve kids. This one is at the top of my list."

A DCF social worker visited the Auburn foster home three days before the child’s death on Saturday.  An autopsy has been completed, but the cause of death has not been determined. A 22-month-old foster child who was taken from the same home Saturday is hospitalized in critical condition.

A six-month- old foster child and the foster mother’s two biological children and an adopted child have been removed from the home as a precaution, according to DCF.  The foster mother is cooperating with the police investigation.

DCF has been under intense scrutiny since 2013 when the agency’s social workers lost track of Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg.  His body was later found beside a highway.   Last month, a 7-year - old Hardwick boy who was being monitored by DCF went into a coma after allegedly being tortured by his father.

An internal DCF report on the Hardwick case is due at the end of the month, and the probe into the Auburn case is expected to wrap up by the end of September.  Baker said results of both investigations will be made public.

" I am not going to be satisfied until we get to the point where this sort of thing doesn't happen. Period," said Baker.

Baker increased the DCF budget by $100 million and said the agency was spared from budget cuts earlier this year that impacted other parts of state government.

  Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services, said the DCF caseload has increased 30 percent since December 2013.

" That is a huge increase," she said.  " We have made a commitment to continue to hire social workers in order to bring down the caseloads."

The Auburn case has also brought scrutiny to the foster-care system in Massachusetts. State officials said Auburn police and emergency workers responded to dozens of 911 calls at addresses where the foster mother lived between 2004 and 2008. 

Sudders  noted that most of the 911 calls occurred before the woman became a foster parent in 2014, and police did not report any suspected child abuse.

" I think this is one of the questions as we do a review of this case," she said. "Do we need to  change any of our practices in terms of contacting local police during the course of licensing foster parents?"

Currently, the background investigation on prospective foster parents consists of a criminal records search and a home inspection.

Children in foster homes are visited monthly by a DCF social worker during the first six months in foster care and then every other month.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on Monday said she is also paying attention to the Auburn foster care case.

" For all of us who spend a lot of time thinking about the health and welfare of children and families it is absolutely tragic. It is devastating when we see a situation like this," she said.  " There is an investigation by the Worcester County District Attorney's office. We need to let that process unfold."

DCF oversees approximately 47,000 children in Massachusetts, according to state officials.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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