The Massachusetts department charged with protecting children from abuse "didn't do enough" to protect the Bella Bond, whose remains were found in a trash bag on Deer Island in June.
It took police three months to identify Bella's body. Her mother, Rachelle Bond has been charged with accessory to murder, and her boyfriend, Michael McCarthy was charged with the child's murder.
A report issued Wednesday by The Office of the Child Advocate said the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) said that previous allegations of Bella’s neglect and abuse “should have warranted a higher response level.”
Between 2009 and 2013, at least 110 Massachusetts children under the age of 17, died due to abuse and neglect, an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found. A third of these children were under DCF care at some point, and at least 26 were found to be under DCF care at the time of their deaths.
The state’s records on child fatality data is faulty and it doesn’t appear that the state agency has learned from past mistakes, the NECIR investigation revealed.
“It’s a very dysfunctional system. Not only is DCF failing, but the other eye of the state, the child fatality review teams, are largely nonfunctional,” Robert Sege, vice president at the Boston-based nonprofit Health Resources in Action told NECIR.
Currently DCF operates a two-tier system, separating high-risk from low-risk cases. However, poorly trained and inexperienced social workers often lack the judgment required to decide whether a child should be placed in the high risk category as opposed to the low risk, NECIR found.
A separate report done last year by the Child Welfare League of America also found that the effectiveness of the two-tier system was compromised by “budget cuts, lack of staff support, and growing caseloads.”
Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor and national critic of the two-track program, told NECIR that “especially for children in the lower-risk category, best interest of the child is clearly not the standard.”
While closer care of children can reduce deaths, “even a full-scale investigation by DCF is no guarantee children will be safe,” NECIR's Jenifer McKim writes.
For instance, one child who had been under DCF supervision since birth died in 2012, when left by her drug addict mother in an overheated car. The baby’s father had filed a police report prior to the baby’s death that was never relayed to the DCF.
But perhaps just as troubling are the 72 children who died of abuse and neglect that were never in the state system at all. “Some cases reviewed by NECIR include clear signs that the state missed opportunities to save them,” said Ms. McKim.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker says the attention brought to DCF's shortcomings by Bella's case will help lead to reform.
DCF “has many systemic problems and we are going to fix them," Governor Baker said at a press conference after the revelation that Bella's family had already been on DCF's radar.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.