Audit: Mass. DCF Failed To Track Seriously Injured Children In Its Care

Dec 7, 2017

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families failed to adequately track and report injuries and abuse of children who were under DCF supervision, a state audit released on Thursday found.

Over a two-year period — 2014 and 2015 — DCF was not aware of 260 incidents that involved apparent serious bodily injury to children in its care, the audit found, according to the office of state Auditor Suzanne Bump.

The audit comes two years after Gov. Charlie Baker outlined a series of reforms for DCF, following several tragic cases involving youths who had some interaction with the agency. The governor's office said in a statement Thursday that the "audit is not current," and that many reforms the administration implemented starting in 2015 "have already corrected or addressed concerns raised by the auditor."

Both the governor's office and DCF pointed to an overhaul of the agency's policies and budget and staffing increases that began four months before the audit's conclusion. DCF's budget grew by $100 million, and it said more than 300 case workers and 96 managers were hired.

During a press conference Thursday, Bump told reporters her office did not measure the results of those reforms and "can't make that sort of judgment" when it comes to whether the changes have corrected problems detailed in the audit.

"The department’s priority is to protect our most vulnerable children," a DCF spokesperson said in a statement, "and it relies on mandated reporters, such as health care providers, physicians and teachers, to provide us with up-to-the-moment information about serious instances of suspected abuse and neglect so that we can respond with the urgency they deserve and ensure safety."

The audit found that since the agency does not consider sexual abuse a "critical incident" — meaning a death, near-death or serious injury of a child — DCF has not been reporting incidents of sexual abuse to the Office of the Child Advocate. The OCA is tasked with making sure children in state care receive appropriate services.

“How can the agency not consider sexual abuse a serious injury to a child? It defies logic,” Bump said in a press release.

The governor's office said in a statement that "an improved DA [district attorney] referral process to require written citations of sexual assault allegations" was among the agency's new policies.

Bump's audit highlights a few of the serious injuries to children in DCF's care: a 15-year-old with brain damage from a gunshot wound; a 1-year-old with serious burns on multiple body parts; and a 12-year-old with multiple head contusions that were determined by a doctor to be caused by an assault.

She blamed poor data use for DCF not tracking or reporting these incidents. Instead of getting data from sources like MassHealth — which enrolls all children in DCF care — the agency relied on others to notify them of any injuries or incidents.

Bump's office found 118 incidents of sexual abuse of a child in DCF care that were not reported to OCA, including, among others, two male employees at DCF-contracted residential facilities who sexually abused three girls each, and a 10-year-old who was raped by his father.

DCF said it investigated these incidents with local law enforcement but said since they were not "critical incidents," DCF did not report them to OCA.

Bump said DCF is taking steps to remedy its behavior, including working with OCA, centralizing reporting of critical incidents, and recording child-on-child injuries in case files.

With additional reporting from WBUR's Steve Brown.

This story was originally published by WBUR.