Did DCF return David Almond to his father because he is white?

Sen. Gomez questions racial disproportionality in child welfare

ADVOCATES SEEKING TO END racial disparities in Massachusetts’s child welfare system now have a powerful legislative ally: Sen. Adam Gomez, the new Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. An oversight hearing this week on the death of Fall River teen David Almond demonstrated just how laser focused on racial equity the Springfield Democrat will be.

Almond, who died allegedly due to abuse and neglect by his father and father’s girlfriend, despite being under DCF supervision, was white. Nowhere in a 107-page investigation by child advocate Maria Mossaides did she mention race. Yet at Tuesday’s hearing, race was foremost on Gomez’s mind.

The first question Gomez asked Mossaides mentioned racial disproportionality in the child welfare system. Did Mossaides’s analysis of the Almond case, he asked, incorporate a racial equity lens and consider whether there was a “racial difference in the treatment of the Almond family with similarly situated families of color?”

In a follow-up interview with CommonWealth, Gomez said families of color are often treated differently than white families in child welfare. He questioned whether David Almond would have been returned to his father’s custody had his father not been white. “Often, the BIPOC mothers and fathers and guardians aren’t given the benefit of the doubt at every turn,” Gomez said, using the acronym for black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Mossaides’s report found that DCF missed numerous red flags that should have alerted social workers to the potential for abuse and neglect if Almond were returned to his father, and once Almond was in his father’s custody. “Those red flags that would have come up during the Almond case really made me think about did they pass through those red flags because they were white?” Gomez asked.

Mossaides and DCF officials have said they cannot explain why certain decisions were made in the Almond case, including David’s reunification with his father. Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services, called some of the decisions “inexplicable.” There has not been any evidence that race played a role.

Mossaides responded to Gomez’s question by talking about a data working group she is involved with, which is analyzing data related to racial disproportionality in DCF cases in an attempt to address the issue. She noted that, historically, child welfare agencies have always focused on poorer families. Given minority poverty rates, that has translated into “a disproportionate surveillance on communities of color,” she said.

Racial issues are starting to bubble to the surface at DCF. CommonWealth recently reported on the disproportionate rate at which Latino children are being removed from their homes. A report by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice highlighted problems with DCF’s provision of language services to non-English speakers. Meanwhile, a commission chaired by Mossaides that is exploring expanding the laws related to mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse is running into fierce opposition due to concerns that an expansion would worsen racial disproportionality.

Mossaides said in her testimony that she would like the Legislature to give her office money to do a qualitative review of the DCF caseload to determine why racial disproportionality exists, with an emphasis on what happens when a complaint is first filed. “We need qualitative data in order to figure out where the problem is so we can make recommendations about what we think proposed solutions might be to reduce disproportionality,” Mossaides said.

As one of two people of color in the state Senate, Gomez said he feels a special responsibility to minority communities. It is likely no coincidence that Mossaides made her request for study money in response to Gomez’s question a week before the Senate releases its fiscal 2022 state budget proposal. Gomez said Mossaides has not communicated with his office about her request, but if she does, he would “undoubtedly support that.”