At legislative hearing, officials at a loss to explain state actions
AFTER A 107-PAGE investigatory report and hours of public testimony, some of the key decisions that led to Fall River teen David Almond’s death remain inexplicable.
Almond, who was autistic, died at age 14 in October 2020, allegedly due to abuse and neglect by his father, John Almond, and his father’s girlfriend, Jaclyn Coleman. The couple is facing criminal charges.
David Almond and his two brothers, who are triplets, had been in the custody of child protective officials on and off for years in New York, then Massachusetts. At a virtual oversight hearing conducted by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday, state officials testified bluntly that child protective services had no reason to take certain actions – like rushing to return David Almond and one of his brothers to their father’s custody – and they could not find any rationale for those decisions.
The timing was strange. The agency had been intending to sever the triplets’ ties with their father, but just one day after a Juvenile Court judge found the father, John Almond, unfit to parent, the Department of Children and Families changed that goal and moved to reunite the children with their father.
“It is completely inexplicable,” said Marylou Sudders, the governor’s secretary of health and human services. “It is bad social work.”
The oversight hearing came in response to a scathing investigation by Child Advocate Maria Mossaides, which detailed missed warning signs and inappropriate decisions by the Department of Children and Families that led to David Almond’s return to his father’s apartment in March 2020, and to DCF’s failure to catch the abuse and neglect before David Almond died in October. His brother was seriously injured.
Sudders and DCF Commissioner Linda Spears have admitted the state failed Almond and pledged to implement all the reforms Mossaides recommended. Two Fall River–area DCF managers have lost their jobs, and the agency is already implementing numerous reforms. The oversight hearing offered an opportunity for lawmakers to dig deep into the problems at the agency. Mossaides testified first, followed by Sudders and Spears. Those three speakers testified for more than four hours. State education, court, and probation officials were scheduled to appear later in the afternoon.
While all three officials testified extensively about a range of topics – training, management, policies, reforms, and the Almond case itself – it was clear that several major questions about the handling of Almond’s case remain unanswered.
Mossaides’ report strongly criticized the decision to change the triplets’ goal from termination of parental rights to reunification with their parent, and the decision to send them to their father’s apartment, despite the hesitancy of social service providers and DCF caseworkers, and despite the inadequacy of John Almond’s small apartment to house the entire family.
Rep. Michael Finn of West Springfield, the co-chair of the legislative committee, questioned Mossaides about why DCF changed the boys’ goal. “That is the unanswered question that the OCA has struggled with,” Mossaides said. “We were not able to get answers from the senior members of the DCF area office team regarding why they rejected the recommendations of their own staff, the recommendations of the providers who were serving this family, to rush the reunification process. They did not provide adequate information despite our repeated efforts to confront them with the facts of the case.”
Mossaides said there were no notes in Almond’s case file documenting why the decision was made. She said she “interviewed everyone up and down the chain of command” and got no answers. Mossaides said it was clear DCF managers failed to adequately assess the case. “The reasons for that failure were not documented, and the individuals involved in making that decision refused to provide an answer,” she said.
Mossaides did say that DCF officials saw the successful return of Coleman and Almond’s 3-year-old child Aiden to Coleman and Almond’s home – and used that as a basis to assume that the teenage triplets could also be returned. She said the decision was made despite the fact that a one-bedroom apartment with three adults (the triplets’ grandmother was also living there), a toddler, and cats and dogs would not allow three autistic 14-year-olds the physical space they needed to regulate their behavior.
Mossaides said senior managers at DCF felt they were not allowed to discriminate against the family because they lived in a small apartment – but they did not recognize the disability-related issue that the boys needed a quiet, safe space. “The staff involved had no understanding of what home environment would be a requirement to continue to allow the boys to thrive,” Mossaides said.
Spears acknowledged the failure, and said a clinical review should have been done to discuss the issues surrounding housing and treatment, although she could not explain why it was not done. “Workers and staff in this case did the activities of casework but they did not add two plus two together to come up with a clinical formulation that told us in a deeper way what needed to happen holistically for these children,” Spears said. Spears said DCF should have made a plan for reunification that took into account Almond’s disability. “We dd not fully comprehend what his needs were,” she admitted.
Spears added, when questioned about the inadequacy of the Almonds’ living quarters, “I don’t think there’s anything that can excuse a notion that three teenagers, three adults, and a baby could sleep in an apartment of that size.”
Sen. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat, asked Mossaides about a lack of communication between social services in New York state, where the boys were born and were initially removed from their parents’ home, and Massachusetts, where John Almond moved and they were returned to him.
Mossaides said she attempted to reach New York officials, but was unsuccessful. The day the report was released, she said, the county attorney’s office finally got in touch with her. New York officials are now in the process of pulling Almond’s files from a warehouse, and Mossaides said she will update her report if she learns more about why New York authorities returned custody to Almond and why they did not communicate with DCF in Massachusetts.
The hearing at times got testy as lawmakers expressed anger and frustration over how Almond fell through the cracks. Committee co-chair Sen. Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat, asked Sudders how confident she was in DCF leadership to keep kids safe. Sudders said she was “taken aback” at the question and gave a full-throated defense of Spears.
“I have complete confidence in Commissioner Spears and her ability to lead the agency,” Sudders said, touting major reforms Spears has made to the agency since 2015.
Velis questioned DCF’s decision to move to remote visits during the pandemic, which led to a situation where no DCF worker laid eyes on Almond in person from the time he was returned to his father’s apartment in March until he died in October. DCF was still doing emergency and high-risk visits in person, but Almond apparently did not qualify as high risk.
“If DCF had just gotten one set of eyeballs on David Almond throughout this entire time, this potentially could have been prevented,” Velis said. He said DCF’s decision to use virtual visits “was a decision with catastrophic consequences.”
Spears said the decision on virtual visits was made based on federal guidelines. Even so, she said, Almond should have been visited in person three times, but each time the family turned away social workers, saying that a family member had COVID-19 or had been exposed to the virus.
Rep. Alyson Sullivan, an Abington Republican, asked why Almond was not subject to unannounced visits, given the family’s long involvement with social services. Spears answered, “That’s a great question. I wish I knew the answer.”
Sullivan then asked why social workers allowed Coleman to control the boys’ responses during virtual visits. Spears again had no answer. “I think that’s part of the questions that we all have in this case,” Spears said. “Why two plus two did not equal four on a number of occasions.”