The unsettling details of 2-year-old Bella Bond’s death have trickled out in the four days since her mother and mother’s boyfriend were charged in her June slaying.
The mother, Rachelle Bond, has a history of drugs, prostitution and restraining orders. She previously had her parental rights over two other children terminated. And the state had investigated Bella’s alleged neglect twice before.
Now comes a familiar demand for answers.
The girl, found in a bag on a Deer Island shoreline in the Boston Harbor, remained a mystery for months until one of the boyfriend’s longtime pals, Michael Sprinsky, came forward to identify the toddler heretofore known as “Baby Doe.”
Sprinsky said he had briefly lived with the couple and was disturbed by how they yelled at the girl, demeaned her, spanked her and, on two occasions, locked her in a closet for 30 minutes to an hour.
To hear police and prosecutors tell it, Michael McCarthy thought the brown-eyed Bella was a demon and killed her — perhaps by repeatedly punching her in the stomach, perhaps by suffocating her — and Bond helped him dispose of the body. They both stand charged in her murder.
Lawyers for Bond and McCarthy present starkly different accounts: McCarthy alleges Bond told him Bella was in state custody and he had no reason to doubt her until police informed him Bella was dead, while Bond claims McCarthy killed the girl and then injected Bond with heroin, threatening to kill her if she tried to contact police.
While the jury will doubtless face tough questions, the state Department and Children and Families is facing vexing queries of its own, namely: Are its policies, practices or past actions in Bella’s case to blame in the girl’s death?
Consider that between 2006 and 2011 child welfare authorities terminated Bond’s parental rights over two other children, one who was placed in the custody of a grandmother and one who was adopted by an unrelated family. One would think that might put Bond on some sort of watch list, but DCF policy reportedly would not allow those two instances to have any bearing on Bond’s future children.
The department did, however, receive reports of neglect in regard to Bella in 2012 and 2013.
“DCF determined neglect was involved,” the agency said in a statement about the 2012 case. “Services were provided and we eventually closed the case.”
It also closed the 2013 case. The agency said it couldn’t disclose details of the cases, but a DCF official briefed on the investigation said that many levels of review are required to close a case, and no case is closed until a social worker has completed an assessment determining the risk for further neglect or abuse. A manager then signs off on the assessment, the source said.
Bella’s father, Joe Amoroso, who left Bond when she was pregnant with Bella and had only recently returned to Boston to assume his paternal responsibilities, did not mince words in blaming DCF. Suspecting Bella was in a bad situation, Amoroso called the department in hopes that they would remove Bella from the home. His mother called the department as well, he said.
“Cases were opened up and then they were closed. I hold a lot of this, you know, DCF responsible,” he said.
Following the discovery of Bella’s body, the DCF looked at recently closed and current cases involving children younger than 5, and the department made sure social workers personally visited thousands of children, the DCF official said. The agency is still examining Bella’s case, the source said.
Gov. Charlie Baker this week promised speedy reform at the department. Saying “the basic playbook for child welfare” hadn’t been updated. The DCF was using a 12-year-old intake model, something the governor said he has recently recommended improving, according to the Boston Herald. He called it a top priority, the newspaper reported, saying he intends to work with the department, unions and others to rectify the situation.
“This is sort of the core of how you keep kids safe. We’re on it, but we need to move quickly,” he said.
Bella’s case is not the first in which DCF policies have come under fire, however, and it’s not the first time Baker has addressed the policies. In 2013, then-DCF Commissioner Olga Roche fired two employees who failed to conduct in-person monthly checks on the family of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, who was missing for five months before police were alerted to his disappearance.
“This is a deeply concerning case of neglect and abuse,” Roche told CNN at the time.
The Fitchburg boy’s body, which had been wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in a bag, was found on the side of a highway in April 2014. That same year, a political action committee backing Baker blamed his Democratic opponent for the governor’s seat — then-state Attorney General Martha Coakley — for the well-documented problems at DCF, CNN affiliate WGBH reported. Coakley was outraged by the accusation.
Last month, Baker again decried DCF policies, saying he was troubled that so many social workers had let the case of Jack Loiselle slip under the radar. The 7-year-old slipped into a coma after his father allegedly isolated him, leaving him starved and dehydrated, according to CNN affiliate WFXT.
“I said from the day this case broke that I was troubled by the number of eyes that were on this child and how this all happened,” Baker told the station in August.
Policy of triage?
DCF Commissioner Linda Spears was scheduled to meet with other agencies Tuesday to discuss policy changes, WFXT reported.
“The investigations into the recent tragedies revealed systemic problems within the department and the Baker administration is taking action to improve intake procedures, increase staffing and tackle several other reforms to how the department operates,” a DCF statement said.
But Peter MacKinnon, union president of the DCF chapter, told WFXT that social workers carry unsafe caseloads, leaving them to triage cases and fail children in need. Part of the problem, he told the station, is that policies require social workers to keep families together, even if it jeopardizes a child’s safety.
“We have to do our best to try to pick the right cases and families to look at and you hope you don’t miss something. … Child safety wasn’t always first and foremost in every workers mind. The policies were dictated that we are going to look at the cases a little different,” he told the station. “We need to get back to looking at every case through a protective lens.”
Where the buck stops isn’t totally clear, and it doesn’t appear money is the issue, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo told CNN affiliate WCVB. Baker increased DCF funding for 2015 by $35.5 million, the station reported. He also upgraded the department’s technology and hired 300 new social workers, a DCF statement said.
“Many people say if you sleep on something for 24 hours, you may calm down the next day. Maybe something won’t bother you as much as it before,” DeLeo said. “This isn’t one of those times for me, quite frankly.”