State investigators found dozens of instances in which the addresses of homes under DCF matched those of Level 2 and 3 sex offenders, according to an audit released today that found the state’s child welfare agency does not screen for whether sex offenders live in a foster home’s neighborhood, does a shoddy job of keeping records on the background checks it performs on foster parents, and lags in getting kids in its care to doctors.
In the audit’s 27-month timeframe, state Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office said, investigators found 25 instances in which the addresses of foster homes, adoptive homes and others under the Department of Children and Families watch matched those of Level 2 and 3 sex offenders. When DCF investigated, it said none of the sex offenders were actually living in the same home and that they could not “substantiate” that any abuse happened.
But Bump’s office said some examples still posed “high-risk” placements, including a 3-year-old under DCF care who was living in a different unit of the same building as a Level 3 sex offender convicted of rape of a child with force. In another instance, a 12-year-old and 9-year-old lived in the same building as another Level 3 sex offender up until October 2012.
Related: Read the Auditor's report
Bump’s office said it “believes that some of the situations we identified during our matching process represent a significant risk to a child, and therefore, DCF should consider using this SORB information, which is readily available, as another means to ensure the safety of children placed in its custody.”
DCF officials told Bump’s office that it did not have what it considered “streamlined access” to the Sex Offender Registry but that it is “working on obtaining this access,” according to the report.
The report from Bump’s office deepens the scrutiny of the embattled Department of Children and Families, which is also under investigation by a Washington, D.C., advocacy group as well as legislators looking to identify systemic issues.
The audit, which covered a 15-month period between July 2010 and Sept. 2012, pre-dates the case of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg 5-year-old whose disappearance went unnoticed for months by state social workers assigned to his family.
But it zeros in on a number of issues that have emerged in the wake of the case, among them how the department documents its background checks.
The audit found that DCF maintains an incomplete record of the checks it performed, meaning “DCF cannot provide assurance that such checks were performed and properly evaluated before DCF placed children in those foster homes,” Bump’s office said in a statement.
Under DCF rules, prospective foster parents with a variety of criminal records may be barred from taking in children, but the agency can consider giving them a waiver. The Herald has reported the agency issued more than 550 waivers last year alone for foster parents with criminal records.
Bump said because DCF couldn’t give her office a complete list of foster placements for which the background check waivers had been issued, she has now launched an additional “limited-scope audit”of DCF focusing on how the agency grants background-check waivers to licensed foster homes.
“DCF front-line workers and managers need better guidance and better tools in order to effectively protect the children entrusted to their care,” Bump said in a statement. “The kind of accountability that this office needs and the public wants to see requires planning, oversight, and access to additional information and technology at the front end, not just acceptance of responsibility for something gone wrong.
“Without proper documenting, DCF’s management cannot effectively supervise its staff and ensure the public that it is achieving its mission,” she added.
The agency also isn’t ensuring that kids in their care are being seen by doctors within the seven-day and 30-day windows set by DCF.
The Child Welfare League of America — a Washington, D.C. advocacy group hired by Gov. Deval Patrick to probe DCF— had also released findings on medical screening in an initial report this month. It urged the agency to do initial screenings within 72 hours; almost a quarter of children in DCF’s care do not currently get medical exams even within 30 days.
DCF and its commissioner, Olga Roche, have been under heavy fire in recent months, starting with the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, who was last seen by family members in September. His sister alerted school officials three months later in December that he was missing, and authorities, fearing Oliver is dead, have launched a homicide investigation.
The boy’s mother, Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, were indicted last week on a series of charges in connection with the case, including kidnapping, assault and battery, and in Sierra’s case, indecent assault and battery of a child.
The Herald has exposed a number of other problems at the agency, including cases of abuse in foster care and that only one-third of its social workers are actually licensed by the state. DCF has also acknowledged that more than 100 “on the run” kids in their care are missing.
The report drew quick responses from Massachusetts Republicans, including gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker, who said the audit's "sobering" findings pushes his notion that Commissioner Olga Roche needs to resign.
"From faulty record keeping, to lack of oversight resulting in missed visits to our state's most vulnerable children, it is clear that the state is not meeting its responsibility to keep safe the children in DCF's care," Baker said in a statement released through his campaign. "I continue to believe that putting new leadership in place is the first step in fixing this broken agency."
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said Bump's report "reconfirms" the types of failures inside the agency, and used it as a call for reforms, in part, through legislative action.
"Now, more than ever, it is clear that reforming this agency needs to be a priority for the Legislature and the Administration, and the job needs to be done in a timely and effective way," Tarr said in a statement.