Child agency faulted in handling of baby Bella case

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BOSTON – Bella Bond, the little girl whose body was discovered stuffed in a trash bag on the shores of Deer Island, remained with her mother – who now faces charges in her daughter’s death – only after state child-welfare workers prematurely closed an examination into the toddler’s home life, a state investigation has determined.

The Department of Children and Families hastily closed an abuse investigation involving Bella and her home life in September 2013, the Office of the Child Advocate said Wednesday in a report. Rachelle Bond, Bella’s mother, had a history of drug abuse, prostitution and restraining orders that was known to the agency, according to the review.

However, in 2012 and 2013 the child-welfare agency “observed Bella to be happy and well-cared for by Ms. Bond, and professionals working with the family consistently communicated these same observations,” the report says. It adds that child-welfare workers closed the case “with a false sense of security” that Bond, now 40 years of age, would contact DCF if problems came up.

Bond faces an accessory to murder after the fact charge while her boyfriend, 35-year-old Michael McCarthy, has been arraigned on a murder charge in Bella’s death. McCarthy claimed to prosecutors that Bella was possessed by demons. The state medical examiner’s office has yet to release a ruling on an official cause of death.

The advocate’s report does not say what prompted the child-welfare agency to conduct a four-month probe in 2012 and a second, three-month investigation in 2013 of Bella’s home life, but acknowledges allegations of neglect. The report points out that Bond was only several weeks pregnant with Bella when she began a six-month jail sentence.

“Rachelle Bond had a long history of involuntary involvement with local and state law enforcement agencies dating as far back as 1994, with arrests too numerous to list,” the report says.

The report also says Bond lost parental rights to two children born more than 10 years before Bella’s 2012 birth. The state “terminated” those rights following separate investigations, it says.

“Given this history and the current concern, DCF should have initiated an emergency investigation, rather than a non-emergency investigation” of Bella’s circumstances, the report concludes. “In both 2012 and 2013 the investigators answered questions in ways that underestimated the risk to Bella.”

The report also says that the agency “missed opportunities to gather pertinent information from professionals” who were working with Bella’s family.

“DCF relied on Ms. Bond’s own statements in some cases and did not delve deeper by contacting professionals or agencies with whom she should have been working,” the report says.

The report recommends improving the current state of information sharing between state agencies.

“The OCA’s findings regarding DCF casework in 2012-2013 are similar to those identified in other recent case reviews released by the governor and the OCA,” Maria Z. Mossaides, head of the advocate office, said in a statement released with the report. The child-welfare agency has also been accused of mishandling earlier cases, including  the Aug. 15 death of a toddler in an Auburn foster home and a Fitchburg boy’s murder in 2013.

Mossaides stressed that the Bella Bond report “is not intended to place blame.”