FOX25 Investigates: State school investigators phoning it in

BOSTON — State school licensing investigators – charged with probing abuse and neglect at daycares, after-school programs and residential schools – have often been conducting their school investigations by phone, FOX25 Investigates uncovered.

When Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen looked at more than two dozen investigations of abuse and neglect at two residential schools going back to 2014, he found state investigators with the Department of Early Education and Care rarely visiting these schools in person.

For more than three months, FOX25 Investigates has been looking into how the state monitors residential schools, which receive taxpayer dollars and serve kids with learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral issues.

While the state Department of Children and Families shows up to investigate individual allegations of abuse, FOX25 found EEC inspectors often are doing their investigations by phone.

Sue Meyers told FOX25 Investigates she filed a complaint after her daughter, Ivey, said she was abused in a dorm at Chamberlain International School, a residential school in Middleboro.

She told FOX25 DCF couldn’t verify those allegations.

But in a separate investigation of the school, the Disability Law Center found multiple reports of neglect and abuse, including “inadequate supervision” and “excessive force” – allegations the school strongly denies.

Meyers said she was concerned to hear EEC inspectors were phoning in their investigations.

“I think it's very serious. Something really bad could happen,” said Meyers.

Investigations “via phone”

Documents obtained by FOX25 Investigates show nine EEC investigation reports on Chamberlain over a year and a half but just one in-person visit by an EEC investigator during that time.

Those reports detailed allegations of abuse, a school staff member meeting “fully naked” with a student and another student “dizzy and disoriented” and hospitalized after taking the wrong medication – all incidents EEC investigated by interviewing the school’s assistant director “via phone.”

EEC Commissioner Tom Weber told FOX25 Investigates his staffers make on-site visits “as necessary.”

“We make a decision based on the nature of what has been presented to us and we make a decision about how to best approach the inquiry that we're going to make in that investigation,” Weber told FOX25.

But records for another residential school – Evergreen Center in Milford – show a similar pattern.

Out of 17 reported incidents, it appears an EEC investigator only visited the school once after police filed felony criminal charges against a staff member accused of abuse.

Evergreen declined to speak on-camera but told FOX25 it over-reports safety issues in an abundance of caution and said other state agencies also reviewed the allegations and dismissed the majority of them.

Lawmakers raise questions

Webster and EEC bosses are also facing questions from Beacon Hill lawmakers.

At a State House hearing last week, the agency revealed it has just five investigators to oversee more than 9,000 programs across Massachusetts, including day cares, after-school programs and residential schools.

“That's akin to telling the New York City police department you only need 100 cops,” Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat, told EEC bosses at the hearing.

Tucker said he’s concerned about what FOX25 Investigates uncovered – that state school investigators are doing so much of their work by phone.

“This is a very vulnerable population that's being served and I would think that there's no substitute for going, on the ground, being there, seeing it with your own eyes,” said Tucker.”

Meyers told FOX25, “It didn't seem like there was much oversight going on at all.”

Sue Meyers’ daughter is no longer at Chamberlain.

In an email to FOX25, the school said, “her commentary is irrelevant to the cases” reviewed by FOX25 Investigates because her daughter left Chamberlain three years ago.

And in each of the allegations, the school said, "the proper state agency investigated the report on site."
Meyers told FOX25 Investigates that hasn't changed her concerns for students across the state.

“They deserve a lot better than what they're getting,” said Meyers. “There aren't enough people involved in overseeing what the school is doing and there should be. It's inexcusable.”

In some of the cases where EEC investigators made phone calls they found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The state’s Child Advocate is now leading a review of how the state monitors these schools and EEC is promising to do annual visits for all residential schools beginning next year.

An EEC spokeswoman said in an emailed statement the agency “is actively participating in a working group led by the Office of the Child Advocate to review public and private residential school programs and improve students' experience at residential schools in Massachusetts.”

The state agency said it requires all residential schools cited for problems to come up with a corrective action plan.

An EEC spokeswoman told FOX25 Investigates, “The Commonwealth takes its responsibility to monitor the safety and educational quality of residential special education schools very seriously.”

Full statement from Evergreen Center:

"As a residential and day school supporting a population of students with complex and challenging issues, Evergreen takes our reporting obligations seriously.  We are required to report any observation which may have the potential of being considered abuse or neglect to multiple state agencies, including EEC, DCF, and DDS.  By design, we over report in an abundance of caution to assure the safety of our students.

"Eleven of the cases identified in this report were reviewed by investigators (representing different agencies) who were on site at Evergreen and the majority were dismissed as unsubstantiated.  Each case where there was physical injury to the student – no matter how mild – was subject to an in person investigation.  Whenever Evergreen makes a report to a public agency, we undertake a thorough investigation and pursue every opportunity to improve staff training, oversight and policies to assure a safe, supportive environment for our students."

Full statement from Sarah Norfleet of the Chamberlain International School:

"Chamberlain International School has faith in the state reporting and licensing agencies. Your claims are misleading and incorrect. Chamberlain self-reported to DEEC cases filed over the two-year period your station has investigated. Of the nine, three were supported by the state agency, four were not supported (meaning they were found to be without merit), one, which involved a student who was over 18 years old remains unresolved and one was not an abuse or neglect investigation, but rather a DEEC review of policy and procedures after a significant incident to ensure compliance with regulations.

"In each of the cases, the proper state agency investigated the report on site. Your claim that the state licensing agency did investigations by phone only is incorrect. It is the role of the DCF to investigate 51a reports and then share that information with the DEEC. In each case, the DCF did a proper investigation on campus. In one of the cases, the DEEC conducted a second investigation on campus and produced a corrective action plan, which the school followed.

"Finally, the parents who are the prime sources for the DLC's investigation, one of whom you have interviewed for this story, have been found to provide information that was discredited by the DLC, DCF and the police department. The parent interviewed for this story had a child enrolled in our school for four months, three years ago – before any of the reports that you have investigated were filed. Her commentary is irrelevant to the cases you call into question."