25 Investigates: Less than 6% of DCF children visited in-person at times during pandemic

FALL RIVER, Mass. — The Department of Children and Families has resumed regular in-person visitation for the first time since the pandemic started.

DCF Commissioner Linda Spears said, as of April 26, normal operations have resumed.

She made the announcement during a hearing Tuesday into the death of David Almond, an intellectually disabled Fall River teenager who died after DCF placed him in his father’s care.

Investigators said Almond was found unresponsive in his father’s home in October 2020. His father and his father’s girlfriend are facing charges in his death.

DCF workers had not seen Almond in person in the months leading up to his death. “It is clear to me that we failed,” Spears said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Spears explained that the DCF was following federal guidance when the agency moved away from in-person visits during the pandemic.

“We were as we say back on our heels trying to manage the crisis,” Spears said. “So we pivoted to virtual visits very early.”

Through a public records request, 25 Investigates obtained DCF data that shows 5.9% of children DCF oversees received an in-person visit at the start of the pandemic in April 2020.

That number increased slightly with each month – 8.1% in May, 10.5% in June, 16.7% in July – but remained down significantly from before the pandemic when nearly 90% of children were seen in-person each month.

“There is nothing that can replace an in-person visit,” said Terry Craven, executive director of Boston CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). “It simply cannot be accomplished over Zoom, and we have learned this during this pandemic.”

Craven said DCF’s pandemic policy was unacceptable. “We don’t have enough eyes on these children during the best of times,” Craven said. “During the worst of times, we should’ve sought out other alternative methods.”

Craven said her organization’s court-appointed special advocates found creative ways to check up on children during the pandemic.

“We went out and we had them bring the children out onto their porches,” Craven explained. “If we had to resort to Zoom, [we would have them] walk room to room through the house so we were sure as to what was going on in the homes, and if we had any concerns about the children, we asked them to bring them out onto the porch so that the advocate could go to the home and have a physical view of those children.”

Craven said these policies helped uncover some instances of abuse during the pandemic. “During that period of time, we reported no less than five cases of ongoing abuse and had those cases brought forward in the juvenile court and addressed,” Craven said. “In some of those cases, those children were removed from those homes.”

DCF Background:

  • DCF never stopped responding in-person to emergencies and our Child-At-Risk hotline that operates on nights, weekends, and holidays remained fully operational throughout the pandemic.
  • To clarify, at the hearing Commissioner Spears stated that all monthly in-person visits for all children, including high risk, have been resumed.
  • There was never a question that DCF would fully resume routine, in-person visits when the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 was significantly reduced.
  • Starting in August 2020, social workers were directed to conduct in-person visits every other month, and virtual visits in between.
  • Effective April 26, 2021, social workers were directed to resume monthly in-person visits.
  • There were no national best practices for video conferencing prior to the pandemic. In March 2020, the Department issued a four-page guidance with practice tips for video conference visits that aligns with COVID-19 guidance issued by the federal Children’s Bureau.