Death of Fall River boy puts DCF in spotlight again
14-year-old under state oversight was malnourished, bruised when he died
THESE FACTS ARE clear, according to the police: David Almond, a 14-year-old autistic boy, and his twin brother Michael, also autistic, were horribly neglected in the home where Almond’s father and his girlfriend were abusing drugs. David died a horrific death last month, malnourished, bruised and covered with feces. The father, John Michael Almond, and his girlfriend, Jaclyn Marie Coleman, have been charged with neglect in Michael’s case and drug possession, while the investigation into David’s death is continuing.
Less clear are the answers to the questions that are haunting child advocates: If the Department of Children and Families was overseeing David and Michael Almond’s case and if the siblings were enrolled in Fall River public schools, why did no one, for eight months, identify these children as victims of abuse and neglect? Is it possible that David Almond’s death was a side-effect of COVID-19 – not the disease itself, but the gaps created in the state systems tasked with protecting children by society’s response to the pandemic?
“Not only do we have concerns about what happened to the child in DCF care, but what happened to the child who was supposed to also be tracked by [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] and the public school system,” asked state Rep. Denise Garlick, a Needham Democrat who is leading House initiatives on the Department of Children and Families. “With how many systems do we fail our children?”
Routine in-person visits by DCF were suspended in March, and workers were told to contact families by phone or FaceTime. In-person visits were conducted throughout the pandemic in cases of emergencies and when serious safety concerns were raised.
Over the summer, DCF began conducting routine visits again with a combination of in-person and videoconference contacts.
“We’re an industry that prides ourselves on seeing kids, on making that connection, and being able to assure their well-being,” said Mary McGeown, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is not involved in the case. While the pandemic requires child protective agencies to ensure children and staff are protected from the virus, McGeown said, “we need to work really, really hard to find safe ways to make sure we have eyes on kids.”
According to court testimony, David and Michael Almond were two of three triplets, all of whom are severely autistic and were previously living at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, a residential school in Rutland that serves around 150 students with intellectual disabilities and other mental and behavioral health problems.
In early March of this year, just as the pandemic was beginning to break out, David and Michael were discharged from the school and sent home to John Almond’s apartment in Fall River. The third sibling remained at Devereaux. The decision to release them is shrouded in a sealed juvenile court file.
Devereux executive director Kerry Ann Goldsmith said the school opposed sending them home. “Devereux opposed David’s discharge from our care and made repeated verbal and written appeals to prevent it,” Goldsmith said in a statement. In a phone interview, Goldsmith said she cannot release more information due to the active investigation and health privacy regulations.
Social workers allegedly raised concerns about the children returning to the home, according to Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU 509, which represents DCF social workers. A spokeswoman for DCF would not provide any information, other than saying that Michael Almond and another young child living in the home remain in DCF custody.
The decision to send the boys home was made by Bristol Juvenile Court justice John Spinale, who was appointed to the bench in 2006 by then-Gov. Mitt Romney. MacKinnon said he believes the judge “was advocating pretty heavily” for the boys to return home.
Child advocates say a severely disabled child recently released from a residential facility to a home where substance use had been an issue should be a top priority for home visits from DCF. Typically, a child under DCF custody released from a residential placement would be the subject of discharge planning, with specific plans in place before they returned home.
While it is not clear what DCF knew when about substance use, when David and Michael Almond were found by the police, the apartment was strewn with heroin baggies, and David Almond had traces of the powerful opioid fentanyl in his body, the police said.
“I don’t know of any case in which you wouldn’t have gone into the home prior to the return of a high needs child,” said Jane Lyons, executive director at Friends of Children, a Hadley-based group that advocates for foster children, which is not involved in the Almond case.
“It’s not all of a sudden that a residential program says, ‘we’ve done all we can, you can take your child home,’ and you pick up your kid and it’s over,” Lyons said. “If DCF’s mission is largely one of child protection, then its policies and procedures around kids returning home should include a case plan that talks about what is necessary for reunification to happen.”
However, the pandemic appears to have made it harder for outside adults – from the Department of Children and Families and the Fall River public schools –– to watch the Almond children. It remains unclear what interactions the Department of Children and Families had with the boys as the pandemic curtailed in-person visits. Citing state and federal confidentiality requirements and the ongoing investigation, DCF is not releasing that information.
State Rep. Carole Fiola, a Fall River Democrat, in a letter to state officials overseeing DCF and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, asked what checks were in place when David and Michael Almond left Devereux; what policies were in place to monitor their remote learning attendance; and how DCF is conducting in-person checks during the pandemic.
“Is it true there were no social worker visits with the boys? When was the last time someone put eyes on them?” Fiola asked in her letter.
Fiola said in an interview that she wrote the letter because she was sickened by David Almond’s death. “I kept thinking about what went wrong from March to October and his death. What were all the failings along the way? My hunch is there were many,” Fiola said.
Neither MacKinnon nor DCF would say whether social workers conducted in-person visits to the Almond family.
“The agency and the union worked really hard to come up with what were attempted to be real common sense approaches during uncommon times to balance worker safety, family safety, and child safety all together,” MacKinnon said. “Because the work of child protection never stops, but you do have to balance it to make sure if anyone has COVID that you’re not infecting anyone else.”
On the school side, the pandemic was the reason why no Fall River teacher ever saw the boys, although school officials made numerous efforts to track them down.
Fall River school superintendent Matthew Malone, a former state education secretary, called it a “perfect storm of systems failure.”
“As the superintendent, I own my part in this,” Malone said.
According to Malone, all three triplets were enrolled in Fall River public schools in 2016-2017, at which time DCF removed them from their home.
Michael and David Almond only reenrolled in Fall River, at the Henry Lord Community School, on March 16, 2020. That same day, before either boy entered the building, the schools announced they were shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic, effective March 17. “There was never a caring adult from the Fall River public schools that had a relationship with either of these two boys because they were gone for three years and the day they came back, we closed,” Malone said.
During the spring, student engagement with schools was limited throughout the state as schools struggled to adapt to the unprecedented shutdown. Fall River rolled out its remote learning plan in April, and Malone said school staff in April and May made repeated attempts via phone, email, and letter to engage the boys’ father and his girlfriend. When those efforts were unsuccessful, school officials contacted DCF. The school reached John Almond in June, but he never showed up for a meeting.
In the fall, the boys enrolled at B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River. State guidelines require schools to allow any family to opt into remote learning this year, which John Almond did for his sons.
According to Malone, on the first day of school, September 16, a special education liaison got in touch with John Almond, who reported that David had regressed since March, and they developed a remote learning plan. But for two weeks, the boys never logged into remote learning. A teacher spoke to John Almond, who said the boys needed Chromebooks. On October 1, an attendance officer went to their apartment with laptops and hotspots. Coleman, John Almond’s girlfriend, met the officer in the stairwell, said the boys were being bathed, and took the equipment.
Under state law, an attendance officer cannot enter a home without a warrant unless invited in. Malone said the officer could have called the police for a wellness check, but there did not appear to be a reason to do so.
On October 5, and on several days over the next couple of weeks, the boys’ computers were turned on, and they were marked virtually present. Their camera was off, however, and school officials now think their father was logging them in.
David Almond died on October 21.
“We never had eyes on them,” Malone said. “That’s one of the real problems.”
On November 9, the Fall River School Committee voted to adopt a new remote learning policy, which requires all students to turn their cameras on during attendance and at the beginning of each class. Malone brought in a retired police chief to determine what other policies should be changed to prevent another death.
Malone turns emotional and angry when talking about Almond’s death. “You have a perfect storm situation, a million agencies involved, and this still happens in broad daylight in a building that probably has 100 people living in it. How in humanity is this allowed to happen?” he asked.
In addition to the criminal investigation by the Bristol County District Attorney’s office and the Fall River schools investigation, the Department of Children and Families is doing an internal review, and the Office of the Child Advocate is investigating.
“In our preliminary review of the facts surrounding his death, we have made a decision to open a much larger investigation,” said Child Advocate Maria Mossaides.
The child advocate’s investigation will become public, as are similar investigations the office conducted of the high-profile deaths of two-year-old Bella Bond in 2015 and five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver in 2014. Both children died under the supervision of DCF, and their parent and parent’s partner faced criminal charges related to their deaths.
While Mossaides could not say what specifically her office is looking at in Almond’s case or when the report would be released, in both the Bond and Oliver cases, her office made recommendations for DCF policy changes. Mossaides said she anticipates similar systemic recommendations will be part of this review – including examining the role of the pandemic.
“It is highly likely in this case we’re going to be looking at the impacts of COVID on what happened or should have happened or didn’t happen,” Mossaides said.
After the Oliver and Bond cases made headlines, former Gov. Deval Patrick and Gov. Charlie Baker, who took office in January 2015 and appointed Linda Spears as the department’s new commissioner, made reforms at DCF and increased funding and staffing. Mossaides said DCF has made the changes she requested after Bella Bond’s death.
In May, Mossaides and other child protection workers warned about a drop in reports of child abuse and neglect as officials required to report suspected abuse – like teachers and doctors – had fewer eyes on at-risk children due to the pandemic. In an interview, she noted that no child protective agency has ever experienced a time when in-person visits became unsafe for such a long period. At DCF, she said it took time for social workers to be outfitted with the personal protective equipment and technology they needed to conduct home and remote visits.
One amendment adopted in the House budget would require DCF to coordinate with state education officials to monitor school attendance for students under DCF care and report on what steps are being taken to engage students. Another amendment would require school districts to use a tracking system to ensure that students are participating in remote learning and efforts are made to reach those who are not. Garlick, who sponsored the DCF amendment, said her amendment was partially in response to the Almond case.
According to state education department spokesperson Jaqueline Reis, there is a process in place to collect student attendance data, along with whether that student is remote or in–person. The department typically looks at attendance data at the end of the year, but may look at it sooner this year.A similar requirement regarding absenteeism reporting for DCF-involved students is included in a standalone DCF reform bill. That bill remains in a conference committee, where the House DCF bill has gotten tied to a Senate children’s mental health bill, leading to difficult negotiations.
Meanwhile, Malone, the Fall River school superintendent, said he is angry that the pandemic created this atmosphere of disconnection by shuttering schools, he is angry at DCF, and he is furious at Almond’s dad. “This death was preventable,” Malone said.