40 children in state care died in 2014

Report: Parental substance abuse present in most cases

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

REPORTS OF ABUSE AND NEGLECT of children in Massachusetts rose in 2014, according to an annual report released Tuesday, which documents the deaths of 40 children receiving state services last year.

The 40 deaths documented in “critical incident” reports last year is the highest amount since 2011 and up from 29 during 2013, according to the report by Child Advocate Gail Garinger. Near-fatalities and serious injuries were down last year, according to the new data from her office.

The grim tally arrives as state officials and the public await reports on the high-profile and unexplained death of a 2-year-old girl in Auburn and the coma suffered by a 7-year-old boy from Hardwick.

In 2013 and 2014, the Department of Children and Families came under increased scrutiny for losing track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old from Fitchburg whose body was later discovered along a highway in Sterling. The agency is now led by Linda Spears, who was previously part of an organization that provided the state with an independent assessment of the department.

The office receives information on “critical” incidents involving the death or serious injury of a child receiving services from a state health and human services agency or under state custody, with the majority of reports coming from the Department of Children and Families.

Half of the six child deaths by injury documented by the Office of the Child Advocate in 2014 were suicides, while two were caused by motor vehicle crashes – as passenger and pedestrian – and a 9-year-old boy was shot and killed. Sixteen children died of medical conditions, including complications from premature births, cancer, and pneumonia. The office verified the cause of eight deaths as sudden and unexpected infant and toddler death.

“Additional risk factors, such as parental substance use, were present in most of the deaths,” Garinger’s office reported. Another 10 deaths have yet to include a ruling from the medical examiner on their cause. Those cases include a 2-year-old girl who died while unattended in a car seat.

Last year the Office of the Child Advocate reviewed reports of abuse or neglect concerning 184 children mainly in foster home or residential care settings.

Supported allegations of sexual abuse of children rose in 2014 compared to the year before, and allegations of neglect and abuse have risen annually since 2012. In 2014 there were 31 supported allegations of sexual abuse, 109 of physical abuse, and 490 of neglect.

The office’s annual report is spare on details about the incidents of injury and death.

Seven youths under state custody or receiving state services suffered near fatalities in 2014, including a 5-month-old boy who was abused, a 17-year-old boy who was struck by a motor vehicle and three teenage boys who were shot.

Last year’s documentation of four “critical incident” injury reports includes a 17-year-old boy sexually abused by staff while living at a state-funded program.

Garinger’s Tuesday report will be her last, as she has announced her plans to resign from the position she has held since 2008, soon after it was first created. As the Baker administration searches for someone to replace Garinger, she wrote, “I would like to commend in particular Elizabeth Armstrong, who has been my deputy, my counselor, and my friend since I became Child Advocate.”

A former juvenile court judge, Garinger proposed expanding the jurisdiction of juvenile justice to include youths under the age of 18 who are charged with murder. For murder cases against people 14 years and older, jurisdiction now lies in Superior Court. Believing youthful crimes can hamper a person throughout life, the child advocate also backs legislation that would allow for “the automatic expungement of juvenile court records for first-offense nonviolent misdemeanors upon final disposition and a specified waiting period provided there has been no subsequent delinquency or criminal offense charged during that period.”