‘Every single safeguard failed David’: Child Advocate says multi-system failure a factor in death of Fall River teen
BOSTON, Mass. (WLNE) – The Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) released a 107-page report Wednesday on its findings following a multi-system investigation into the death of an autistic Fall River teenager last year.
On October 21, 2020, David Almond, 14, was found emaciated, bruised, and unresponsive by first responders in the one-bedroom apartment on Green Street that he shared with his father, his father’s girlfriend, one of his triplet brothers, and a half-sibling.
David was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. His brother, Michael, was also suffering “from similar signs of abuse and neglect”, according to the OCA, and spent several months in the hospital but has now physically recovered. The younger half-sibling was in the home but was uninjured.
On Monday, the boy’s father, John Almond, 33, and his girlfriend, Jaclyn Coleman, 26, were indicted on second-degree murder and neglect charges.
“In this case, every single safeguard failed David,” said Maria Mossaides, Director of the OCA, during a press conference Wednesday.
While David’s cause of death was starvation, Mossaides said the office’s investigation found “multi-system failure” contributed to his passing.
The boys had been in state care since 2013, first in New York up until 2016, until they were returned to their father in Fall River where they lived in the Green Street apartment.
Less than a year later, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) began investigating the family for substance use and abuse and neglect of the children. In October of 2017, the triplets and the half-sibling were removed from the home.
“In early 2020, the triplets were living at a residential home in Massachusetts when DCF initiated the process to return them to Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman to live in that same tiny apartment in Fall River that the triplets were originally removed from in October 2017,” said Mossaides.
Mossaides said no explanation was made by DCF on why they initiated the reunification process.
She noted that one of the triplets did not return to the home, as he had a negative reaction to being around Coleman.
Three days after the boys moved back in, a state of emergency was declared in Massachusetts.
“The decision to reunify was a serious error that unfortunately was compounded by the pandemic,” Mossaides said.
The OCA found that the family was not deemed by DCF as “high-risk”, meaning during the pandemic, in-person visits were not required. Instead, social workers conducted virtual visits where the OCA said Almond and Coleman were able to hide the full extent of the abuse the boys were suffering.
“The father and his girlfriend staged the virtual visit, which only occurred in a bad cell phone view, staged those in a way and answered for the children and so there was not a clear view of the state of both David and Michael,” Mossaides explained. “There were missed warning signals by staff of the Department of Children and Families and that was a serious error.”
Mossaides said often times the couple would respond on behalf of the boys.
The report highlights one instance when David had a wound on his face and the department did not investigate it as abuse.
Additionally, the OCA found that the couple was preventing the boys from attending virtual school.
“One of the reasons why the boys were originally removed from their home was the lack of school attendance, so that should have been a red flag that was communicated.”
The OCA made a number of recommendations, which include DCF redesigning their reunification process to include more rigorous safety assessments and evaluations of parental capacity, conducting a comprehensive review of their own practices, and that they work collaboratively with DESE on determining how districts should ensure DCF has access to attendance updates for students in legal custody of the department.
The OCA also recommended that school districts create operational standards for addressing school attendance, explicitly link attendance in remote and hybrid models to the actual participation of students in their education, and follow all established policies and procedures for investigating and addressing attendance issues.
To the Juvenile Court, the OCA recommends they play a more active role in analyzing the merits of a proposed reunification case, including the requirement that DCF link the family’s action plan to the clinical needs of the family.
“Furthermore, the Court should more strictly ensure that the circumstances that led to DCF’s original decision to remove children from their home are completely resolved before allowing reunification to occur,” the report reads.
DCF Commissioner Linda Spears said the department has already made some changes and taken action against those responsible for these failures, adding that she and her team are “heartbroken” over the situation.
“We moved forward to make changes and to hold those staff that we believe to be accountable for the failure to use available systems to protect this child. That resulted in the termination of two of staff, leadership level staff,” Spears said.
She added that they’d be evaluating the recommendations, adding that it’s their intent to follow each and every one.