Toddler’s death prompts Baker to promise child-welfare agency fix

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BOSTON — The death of an Auburn toddler in a foster home Aug. 15 led investigators to fault the state Department of Children and Families in a review released Thursday, prompting Gov. Charlie Baker to say that his administration will pursue reforms to “get it right.”

Agency workers had visited the 2-year-old just days before she died in the home of Kimberly Malpass, who cared for three foster children as well as three of her own kids. The investigative report said agency staff failed to follow core guidelines, including conducting the necessary background checks on Malpass.

The report concluded there were “several instances where DCF failed to appropriately assess the abilities” of Malpass and “failed to perceive risks of harm to children in her care.”

Malpass called police to say that two of her foster children were unresponsive the day the child, Avalena Conway-Coxon, died. A second toddler, a 22-month-old girl who is still receiving medical care, was found dehydrated. Conway-Coxon was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital.

The report says agency officials failed to act on information indicating that Malpass’s boyfriend, who has a criminal record, was living in the same home.

Baker, speaking to reporters just hours after the report’s release, called the failures it outlines “unacceptable.”

Malpass and her home should have never been approved for foster care by the agency, the Republican governor said. Marylou Sudders, secretary of Health and Human Services, said two agency workers connected with the case have been transferred to administrative jobs while the investigation continues.

Asked whether the workers may face criminal charges, Linda Spears, the agency head, refused to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. Spears said the worker responsible for Malpass home visits has held the job for more than 20 years.

Appearing emotional at times, Baker did not mince words when asked about how he intends to tackle patterns of neglect at the agency. Several children who had been involved with the agency have been murdered or seriously injured in recent incidents.

“I do not want to be another administration that sort of — the word I want to use here I can’t say on TV — that just sort of chases what I would describe as a half-baked solution to this problem and hopes it all goes away,” Baker said.

“We want to be the folks who actually stick with this all the way through and get it right,” he said. “That will take a little longer than a quick fix.”

Since taking over as governor in January, Baker has been frequently pressed for answers regarding how he will change the culture at the child-welfare agency. A succession of high-profile abuse cases involving children involved with the agency have come to light since 2013, when a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy went missing. His body was found near Interstate 190 in Sterling.

The Auburn and Fitchburg cases, coupled with a third in Hardwick involving a 7-year-old boy who fell into a coma after allegedly being starved and abused by his father, prompted state officials to call for reopening the agency’s central regional office in Worcester. It had been eliminated as part of 2009 budget cuts and its clients were handed to the western Massachusetts regional office, leaving it with more than half the agency’s cases. The central regional office is slated to reopen in January.

As for Malpass, the report said she had been investigated twice before the toddler’s death but both probes were dismissed. Also, it said her Auburn apartment was not big enough to accommodate six children.

The veteran agency caseworker, currently designated for administrative duty, failed to follow up on concerns raised by a pediatrician who said Malpass was “overwhelmed,” the report said. It also said that agency family-resource workers failed to assess Malpass’s own health and parenting ability and made only half of the required visits to her apartment during the first six months after it was licensed for use as a foster home.

“It should have never gotten licensed,” Baker said, adding that a corrective action plan has been drawn up and is being implemented. Part of it involves retraining family social workers and supervisors. Baker also said homes in the agency’s Worcester East region will be subjected to a series of “enhanced safety assessments.”

Peter McKinnon, president of Local 509 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents agency employees, said in a statement that “without exception, child protection workers believe in accountability.”

“Whether systemic challenges or individual action, any factor that plays a role in a tragedy must be fully investigated and addressed accordingly,” McKinnon said. “This case is no different and we will continue to work with law enforcement and the administration to ensure appropriate action is taken.”