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Documented reports of abuse or neglect of children in foster care and other out-of-home settings increased in Massachusetts last year, as did deaths among children receiving services from state agencies, according to a report filed Tuesday by the state's Child Advocate.
The release of the 2014 data comes amid renewed scrutiny of the state's child welfare system and calls to increase staffing and funding for the Department of Children and Families.
The advocate counted 633 substantiated allegations of mistreatment in its review of 290 reports of abuse or neglect last year, an increase from 538 allegations of mistreatment in a review of 241 reports in 2013. A single report often includes multiple allegations of abuse or multiple victims.
It counted 40 deaths in 2014, an increase from 29 in the previous year and the highest total since 2011.
"Even the best organized and managed child-serving agency will fail if its staff is overwhelmed. It is the responsibility of the governor and the legislature to ensure that sufficient resources are available."State Child Advocate Gail Garinger
Child Advocate Gail Garinger said 184 of the reports involved children in DCF custody, including 117 who were in foster care.
"Even the best organized and managed child-serving agency will fail if its staff is overwhelmed," Garinger wrote in a letter accompanying her annual report. "It is the responsibility of the governor and the legislature to ensure that sufficient resources are available."
The report documented 136 "critical incident reports" involving deaths or serious injuries among children who were receiving services of some type from DCF or other state agencies, including the Department of Youth Services and the Department of Mental Health. The death of one 9-year-old boy from a gunshot wound was ruled a homicide, three deaths were ruled suicides and two resulted from traffic accidents.
Sixteen deaths, including those of two children in DCF custody, were determined to be from natural causes or existing medical conditions; there were eight cases of "sudden and unexpected infant and toddler death," which includes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and accidental suffocation in bed.
The Massachusetts medical examiner has yet to officially rule on 10 other 2014 deaths, the report said.
Last month, a 2-year-old girl in foster care died after being found unresponsive at an apartment complex in Auburn and another toddler from the same home was hospitalized in critical condition. Authorities have yet to release further details on the circumstances and no charges have been filed.
Gov. Charlie Baker said at the time that the state would launch its own internal investigation.
In July, DCF took custody of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who had allegedly been beaten, starved and dehydrated by his father. The agency had been working with the family prior to the arrest of Randall Lints, who pleaded not guilty to assault and endangerment charges.
In 2013, social workers lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who went missing from his home and whose remains were later found alongside a state highway.
The Oliver case prompted a wide-ranging review of DCF procedures and an eventual shake-up in the agency's top management.
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