25 Investigates: State pays millions to foster care company with history of problems

Millions in taxpayer dollars are still flowing to a for-profit company caring for hundreds of Massachusetts foster kids – despite more than a decade of past evidence the state contractor is not doing enough to protect children under its watch, 25 Investigates uncovered.

A recent congressional report accused The MENTOR Network, which is based in Boston and one of the largest for-profit foster care providers in the country, of creating a culture where “profits are prioritized over children’s well-being.”

25 Investigates obtained new records showing state regulators flagged the company – locally known as Massachusetts MENTOR – after foster kids in its care were sexually abused, endangered or died.

Records also reveal the state Department of Early Education and Care, which licenses all state foster care programs, citing Massachusetts MENTOR for missing background check documents.

But Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen found none of that has stopped the state from doing business with the company, which received $28 million from taxpayers in 2017 alone, according to state records.

A 25 Investigates review of state records on Massachusetts MENTOR revealed:

  • State inspectors reported in 2015 – and again last year – that the company's Worcester-area office "could not provide documentation" that staff had been fingerprinted or checked against the state's sex offender registry.
  • Foster parents were not meeting annual training requirements.
  • A foster parent in the Lawrence area was charged with sexual abuse in 2016. Records show EEC inspectors knew that same foster parent had faced "similar allegations" three years earlier, but still allowed the Massachusetts MENTOR foster home to remain open.
  • A girl at a Massachusetts MENTOR foster home was hit and killed by a truck in 2014. State records show the foster parent "did not report to MENTOR and DCF" that the girl had left the home without permission, but EEC didn't order that foster home closed or open a formal investigation.

The state records obtained by 25 Investigates also show EEC never opened an investigation into a former Massachusetts MENTOR foster parent, 57-year-old Boston firefighter Edward Kulik, Jr., who was charged last year with raping a child.

Kulik has pleaded not guilty and the case is ongoing.

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A Massachusetts MENTOR spokeswoman said Kulik passed annual background checks.

For-profit contractor has history of problems

In 2009, an 11-year-old boy with autism was sexually assaulted by a teen in a Massachusetts MENTOR-run foster home. The company and state child welfare workers dismissed the incident as “consensual” – even though the accused teen had a history of abuse and the boy’s father says his son had the mental capacity of a five- or six-year-old at the time of the assault.

“You just sit there and cry,” said the boy’s father, who 25 Investigates is not identifying to protect the identity of his son, who is now an adult. “You put my autistic son in a house with a kid that had already molested other kids. Are you kidding me?”

Massachusetts MENTOR also paid an undisclosed settlement to the family of four-year-old Dontel Jeffers of Dorchester after it failed to properly vet a foster mother who was convicted of beating the little boy to death in 2005.

Now, more than 10 years later, a 600-page congressional report calls out The MENTOR Network for running a business where “profits are prioritized over children’s well-being.”

The October 2017 report noted 86 children died nationwide while in the company’s care over a decade with 62 of those deaths categorized as “unexpected.”

“If an airline has 86 plane crashes, they’re out of business,” said Maureen Flatley, an expert in child welfare and an advocate for families injured in the foster system.

The MENTOR Network, which is based in Boston, declined a request for an interview with CEO Bruce Nardella, who received more than $2.5 million in total compensation in 2016, according to public records.

But in its response to the congressional report, The MENTOR Network said 40 percent of its most serious cases involved children who had medically complex conditions.

A spokeswoman told 25 Investigates the company cared for about 44,000 foster care children with medically complex issues during that 10-year period that the congressional committee reviewed.

DCF failed to respond to congressional investigation

Linda Spears, commissioner for the state’s Department of Children and Families, also declined an interview request through a spokeswoman.

The recent congressional report found Massachusetts foster kids who had already been abused once had the “highest rate of re-victimization” in the nation.

The congressional committee also asked five states for more in-depth information about problems with The MENTOR Network. Massachusetts was also the only state – out of the five – that failed to respond.
A DCF spokeswoman told 25 Investigates there was "a lot going on at the agency at the time and did not submit the data."

DCF says about 400 children were living in Massachusetts MENTOR-run foster homes as of January.

But an agency spokeswoman admitted DCF has no idea how many cases of abuse and neglect specifically happened at foster homes run by Massachusetts MENTOR because the state does not track that information.

“When bad things happen to kids, there are really no consequences for the people that are responsible,” said Flatley. “When you have this kind of a pattern over a long period of time its inescapable and you really have to take a look at things and go, ‘Wait a minute. We have to do things differently.’”

DCF told 25 Investigates Massachusetts MENTOR is checking on foster kids and their foster homes more often and EEC said its agency hired more investigators to check out programs like Massachusetts MENTOR, but it’s unclear if those changes will solve the problems.

In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for The MENTOR Network said, “All children who enter foster care are victims of trauma, many having experienced multiple and often significant traumas. We take our obligation to ensure their safety and well-being very seriously and strive to do all we can to protect them.”

The spokeswoman said the company was working to ensure it retained documentation of background checks and foster parents received proper training.