DCF Could More Effectively Address Child-on-Child Incidents of Abuse

When a child in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) is involved in an incident with another child in DCF care, DCF typically only documents the incident in the victim’s i-FamilyNet case file, not the perpetrator’s, although it does take steps to address the perpetrator’s behavior. Our review of case file records indicated that these incidents often involve physical altercations, some serious, including stabbings and other physical injuries. DCF officials with whom we spoke did not explain why the incidents were not documented in the perpetrators’ case files, but we determined that the department does not have a policy that requires such incidents to be documented in both parties’ files. Thus DCF is not maintaining a complete and accurate record of each perpetrator’s behavior. That may limit its ability to effectively assess the risk associated with placing children in the same residence as a perpetrator, whether within DCF or in programs run by other agencies. An inadequate risk assessment could expose other children to violence. Therefore, we believe DCF should consider adopting a policy of documenting this kind of incident in both victims’ and perpetrators’ case files.

Auditee’s Response

DCF agrees with the OSA’s recommendation that child-on-child incidents should be recorded in both the victim’s and perpetrator’s i-FamilyNet case file.

DCF Should Categorize Sexual Abuse as a Critical Incident

DCF does not consider sexual abuse to rise to the level of a critical incident and therefore did not report to the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) any of the 118 validated9 cases of sexual abuse that affected children in DCF care during the audit period. These instances included two male employees at different DCF-contracted residential facilities who sexually abused three girls each; a 10-year-old who was raped by his father; a 4-year-old who was sexually abused by her mother; and a 17-year-old who was gang-raped by five assailants. In one case, a male who had sexually abused one child abused the child’s sibling less than one year later. The Office of the State Auditor (OSA) believes that the lack of notification to OCA significantly inhibits OCA’s ability to advocate effectively for children in DCF care.

During the audit period, Section 1 of Chapter 18C of the Massachusetts General Laws defined a critical incident, in part, as follows:

A fatality, near fatality, or serious bodily injury of a child who is in the custody of or receiving services from the executive office of health and human services or 1 of its constituent agencies.

It further defined “serious bodily injury” as follows:

An injury which involves a substantial risk of death, extreme physical pain, protracted and obvious disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ or mental faculty.

However, effective July 1, 2016, Section 21 of Chapter 133 of the Acts of 2016 replaced “serious bodily injury” with “serious bodily or emotional injury,” defined as follows:

An injury which involves a substantial risk of death, extreme physical pain, protracted and obvious disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ or mental faculty or emotional distress.

DCF officials told us that they believe that sexual abuse does not necessarily include “extreme physical pain” or “protracted loss of impairment of mental faculty” and therefore is not a serious bodily injury. They stated that consequently, although the documented instances of sexual abuse that occurred during our audit period were serious, they did not warrant reporting to OCA.

However, during our audit, we spoke with a number of professionals in this area, including professors and doctors from Boston University School of Social Work, the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance, Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Baystate Family Advocacy Center (see Appendix C), who all said they strongly believed that sexual abuse should be considered a critical incident that DCF should report to OCA because of the severe and prolonged distress and trauma it inflicts on victims.

Based on this—and the fact that “serious bodily injury” has been replaced with “serious bodily or emotional injury,” which includes “mental faculty or emotional distress”—OSA believes that DCF should collaborate with OCA and report these cases of sexual abuse to OCA.

Auditee's Response

The Department takes reports of sexual abuse very seriously and recognizes the emotional impact that all forms of sexual abuse have on a child. DCF’s 51B investigation process includes collaboration with the local District Attorney and law enforcement who may also conduct a separate criminal investigation. The Department utilizes the investigation process as its principal intervention to ensure the child’s safety. The primary focus of DCF throughout the investigation process is to determine whether a child is at imminent risk of harm and whether removal is necessary to protect the child. As recommended by the OSA, DCF is already collaborating with the Office of the Child Advocate to determine under what circumstances the sexual abuse allegation should be reported to the Office of the Child Advocate.

9. “Validated” means that the case was investigated and supported by DCF.

Date published: December 7, 2017