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The state's child welfare agency prematurely closed two abuse and neglect cases concerning Bella Bond, the toddler found dead on Deer Island in June, according to a report released Wednesday by the Office of the Child Advocate.
The report, which was requested by Gov. Charlie Baker, found the Department of Children and Families failed to gather enough information to assess the girl's risk of abuse or neglect when it had contact with her two years ago, and did not properly assess her mother's ability to parent -- particularly in light of her losing custody of her two other children in 2001 and 2006.
Bella Bond was known as "Baby Doe" for nearly three months after her body was found inside a trash bag on Deer Island on June 25. Authorities launched a massive campaign to learn the toddler's identify, and Bella was finally identified last month after Boston police received a tip about her identity.
Rachelle Bond, the toddler's mother, and Michael McCarthy, Bond's boyfriend, are facing charges related to the toddler's death. McCarthy is charged with murder while Bond is charged with accessory after the fact. Both have pleaded not guilty and are due back in court on Nov. 19.
The report said the fact that Bond had previously lost custody of her two other children should have prompted more scrutiny of her ability to parent following reports of abuse or neglect against Bella.
Two so-called "51A reports" of abuse or neglect were filed with DCF against Bond over her care of Bella — one in 2012 and one in 2013. Both of those cases were "investigated and supported," but were closed after the family received services.
The report noted that the concerns raised about Bella in those cases were the same concerns previously raised about Bond's older children, and that the agency should have conducted a managerial review and legal consultation to determine whether Bella should have remained in her mother's care.
"Her past history of arrests, substance abuse, mental health issues, instability and the termination of parental rights for two other children should have triggered higher-level conferences at DCF," the report said.
Following the 2012 and 2013 complaints against Bond, the report said, social workers gathered minimal current family and personal history information, instead largely copying information from a 2006 assessment report.
"Gathering current family and personal history from Ms. Bond was critical to the social workers analysis of parental capacity, family functioning, identifying areas of need, and assessing risk to Bella," the report said. "Absent this information, their assessment of risk to Bella could not be considered accurate or complete."
Further, the report said, DCF relied on Bond's own statements without further investigation and failed to gather pertinent information from professionals providing services to the family.
The report does note that DCF observed Bella to be happy and well-cared for in 2012 and 2013 when Bond was living in a family shelter, receiving services and therapy, and under the supervision of a probation officer. The report said DCF likely concluded its 2012 and 2013 cases with "a false sense of security" that those entities would contact the agency if there was concern for Bella's well-being.
However, when the 2013 case was closed, Bond had stopped some of those services and her probation had ended. She was also working to find an apartment and leave the shelter, which had provided support for Bella. The report found that the 2013 assessment, which led to the closure of the Bond's case, was "based on faulty information" that had been copied from the 2012 assessment. The report said that in 2013 DCF should have checked up on the status of the services Bond had been receiving.
The report also said that changes in DCF's management structure — namely the reduction of regional offices and staff starting in 2010 — may have contributed to the improper handling of the case.
The state's Office of the Child Advocate launched the review of this case to determine what involvement DCF and other state agencies and service providers had with Bella's family before her death. The report is based on a review of confidential records and conversations with different agencies.
In addition to laying out what went wrong, the report makes several recommendations for DCF. The report recommends the agency impose mandatory reviews when a report of abuse or neglect is filed against a parent who has already had their parental rights terminated for other children. The report also recommends that the agency improve its risk assessment protocols, give guidance on working with parents who have a history of substance abuse, enhance its electronic record keeping system and mandate that information collected from prior assessments be clearly labeled with dates.
DCF is already revising its policies, training and management structure following several high-profile cases involving children that were at one point in their care.
Last month, Baker outlined a series of reforms for the beleaguered agency, including changing its intake process following allegations of child abuse or neglect, reopening an agency office and reinstating staff positions that were eliminated as part of state budget cuts in 2009.
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