In the first four hours of an oversight hearing Tuesday into a report from the Office of the Child Advocate on the death of a Fall River teenager with autism, lawmakers and Baker administration officials honed in on a lack of understanding within the Department of Children and Families of the unique needs of disabled children, communication breakdowns, and implementing reforms within the department.
David Almond, a 14-year-old, was found on Oct. 21 emaciated, bruised, and unresponsive at his father's home in Fall River. Almond, one of three triplet boys, was under the watch of child welfare agencies in New York and Massachusetts and had been removed from his father's home in October 2017 as a result of allegations of neglect and physical abuse, according to the state's Office of the Child Advocate.
In March 2020, however, the three boys were returned to the home of John Almond in Fall River, where he lived with his girlfriend, Jaclyn Coleman. David Almond's death prompted an uproar in the child welfare community and led to a March 2021 report from the Child Advocate that concluded the decision to return David Almond and his brother to the Fall River home "was not clinically justified."
Lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities held a virtual hearing Tuesday with representatives from the Office of the Child Advocate, Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Department of Early and Secondary Education, and other local and state officials to probe the report in an attempt understand how David Almond died.
Administration officials and lawmakers on the committee alike said DCF failed to recognize the unique needs of David Almond.
"Every child brings with them a set of concerns, trauma experiences, and strengths that we should look to to help us understand what that child needs," DCF Commissioner Linda Spears said. "It's clear to me in looking at the case of David Almond, that one of the things that we did not attend to were the unique needs of this child, that we did not fully comprehend what those needs are."
Later on in the hearing, Sen. Adam Gomez questioned whether the Fall River management team "disregarded" relevant information regarding David Almond. Spears said the staff didn't ignore information but rather "didn't understand how to apply the information to the decisions they were making."
"I don't think that they fundamentally got the developmental disabilities that these children had and the impact of those disabilities on their care needs," Spears said.
Earlier in the day, Office of the Child Advocate Director Maria Mossaides said John Almond and Coleman could not prioritize their children and provide the "very appropriate, precise care" that the children needed. The complicating factor in the case, Mossaides said, was the fact that the parents appeared to "do better" with their three-year-old Aiden, the half-brother to David Almond.
"What we document is the department relied heavily on what appeared to be in a very limited timeframe, the successful reunification of Aiden, and somehow translated that into a parental capacity that was going to be able to take care of three teenage boys along the autism spectrum in an apartment that did not provide the boys with a space where they could control their environment," Mossaides said.
During a normal year, caseworkers are required to visit homes monthly while relying on service providers and community members like teachers and therapists to report suspected negligence and abuse. But guidance from the federal Children's Bureau advised state agencies like DCF to transition to remote operations, Spears said.
The emergency changes to rules and regulations around child welfare agencies nationwide allowed for the use of virtual visits to support case work, the commissioner said. Even with those guidelines in place, Spears said there should have been three in-person visits with the family.
For Sen. John Velis, had workers at DCF "just got in one set of eyeballs on David Almond throughout this entire time, this potentially could have been prevented. Not two, just one." The Westfield Democrat questioned the decision to shift to remote operations, saying the well being of children should come before all else.
"I think there was some recognition that what this profession does surpasses the risk, the risk to those who carry out this job, the risk to the transmission of COVID, which make no mistake about, it is absolutely critical," he said during the hearing. "I would just suggest that DCF's mission set and the population which we're dealing with, the most vulnerable population, in this case exacerbated by disability, I would say that the well being of the children is what's absolutely paramount."
Each time an in-person visit was scheduled with the family, Spears said in response to Velis, the family reported having COVID-19 or said someone was in quarantine. Visits were not held as a result.
"What became clear in retrospect, is that those reasons were not accurate, real excuses. They were excuses that were designed, in my view, to play on people's fears in the midst of COVID," Spears said. "Fall River had a very, very high COVID rate last year. Very, very high. It was one of the higher in the state and I think that's an important factor to consider."
Rep. Alyson Sullivan, an Abington Republican, questioned whether it was "common practice" to allow caretakers like Coleman to have a large role in facilitating communication between the child and DCF workers.
"No," Spears said, prompting Sullivan to ask why Coleman was allowed to do so.
"I think that's part of the questions that we all have in this case," Spears responded.
The Office of the Child Advocate released 26 recommendations intended to improve policies within DCF, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Fall River Public School District, juvenile court, and probation services.
Among them are suggestions around safety assessments, evaluations of parental capacity in reunification processes, and reviews of practices around services for people with disabilities.
Mossaides said one of the "premier recommendations" would require either a supervisor or case worker to consult with one of the department's many subject matter experts in domestic violence, substance use disorder, and mental health. The Baker administration announced Tuesday afternoon that the department plans to hire a statewide disabilities director and specialists.
"The current policies do not require either the supervisor or the line worker to consult with a specialist when they identify this as an issue either in the parents or with the children. And that, to me is a fundamental mistake," Mossaides said. "You cannot expect that every single frontline worker is going to be an expert in every single problem that an adult or family can face. But the department does have these experts."
Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said her office will quickly "accept and implement" the recommendations from the Office of the Child Advocate. She also provided lawmakers with a report detailing the status of reform implementations.
"Following the reporting of David Almond's death, the Office of the Child Advocate, in its independent role, launched an investigation. I also asked the Child Advocate to conduct an independent investigation," Sudders said during the hearing. "His death should not have happened. Kids and youth are dependent upon us to keep them safe. And we all failed."
The Baker administration also announced a series of reforms Tuesday afternoon that aim to address the recommendations from the Child Advocate and issues facing the children, youth, and families served by DCF.
The department and SEIU 509, which represents human service workers and educators in the state, plan to develop new policies that inform the reunification process between parents and children, including a research based risk assessment tool.
DCF workers will also have access to specific professional development opportunities on safety and risk assessment, impact of intellectual/developmental disabilities on child welfare practices, and parental capacity clinical assessments. The administration also plans to increase the availability of substance use abuse consultation services for case workers.
"By design, DCF is the safety net agency for our most at-risk children. As social workers, we know effective clinical decision-making is best done as a team," President of SEIU Local 509 Peter MacKinnon said in a statement. "These reforms strengthen our partnerships and improve communication with the wrap-around services for the children entrusted in our care."