About the 110 fatalities

Information about the 110 child fatality cases between 2009 and 2013 illustrated in our interactive graphic comes from data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, local prosecutors, other public records, and interviews.

DCF released the information following a public records request under the Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act, a federal law that requires states to provide information about cases of “abuse and neglect which results in a child fatality or near fatality.”

State officials say they make the determination of abuse or neglect after getting a call from law enforcement or other mandated reporters to investigate. As part of the probe, social workers generally talk to medical providers and study medical examiner reports – but not always, because of the delays in obtaining these rulings. To make a determination, investigators ask the question, “Is there reasonable cause to believe that abuse or neglected occurred relative to this child?”

In most cases, investigators target abuse, neglect or both as linked to a child’s death. However, in some cases, social workers simply determined that an “allegation of death” was supported, without differentiating what kind of maltreatment was involved. A DCF spokesperson says the agency is are working to “bring consistency to this issue of how deaths are noted.”

If maltreatment was determined, the case was reported to the federal government.

The fact that the state links a child death to abuse or neglect does not mean a caretaker is guilty of a crime. Of the cases determined to be maltreatment by DCF, only 22 were ruled homicides by the medical examiner, while the majority were determined to be accidents, “undetermined,” or, in a few cases, natural causes, records show.

A third of the deaths were determined to be caused by “unsafe sleep,” when a baby is placed on its stomach or is sleeping with an adult, which state officials generally determine to be linked to neglect.

NECIR reporters did their best to include the most accurate information possible using multiple sources. DCF information, in some cases, differs slightly from death reports – some children’s names were spelled differently on death certificates or a paternal or maternal surname was included. In a few cases, the date of death provided by DCF differed by a few days from death certificates. In some cases, locations of death also differed, because DCF generally referred to where children lived, not the hospital where they died.

We are committed to exposing, exploring and explaining the truth through high-quality, high-impact multi-media investigative stories that require time and resources few mainstream news outlets can provide.On any “policy” that is used at time of death to determine if abuse/neglect is involved.  Investigators, at the time of death, ask the question “is there reasonable cause to believe that abuse or neglected occurred relative to this child.”

About this project

Child abuse and neglect deaths burst into headlines in Massachusetts and across the U.S. with disturbing regularity.

In contrast to widespread news about incomprehensible deaths like “Baby Doe,” whose body washed up in a garbage bag on Deer Island this summer, and Fitchburg preschooler Jeremiah Oliver, who was found wrapped in a blanket along a state highway in 2014, most abuse and neglect victims die with little public notice.

But how many, exactly? And why?

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting and the Boston Globe spent the better part of a year prying child abuse and neglect death data out of the secretive state Department of Children and Families — a process the agency demanded nearly $4,500 to pay for and prolonged for many months.

Ultimately, five years of death data – 2009 to 2013 – was released: 110 children reportedly died of neglect and abuse during that time, and those numbers rose steadily from 14 in 2009 to 38 in 2013. About a third of those children had been under the watch of social workers while likely many more been referred to DCF for alleged troubles but concerns were dismissed.

Speaking with social workers, prosecutors, police, DCF administrators, and victims’ families, NECIR reporter Jenifer McKim dug out the details of many of the cases in which children — the large majority under 3 years of age — were beaten, drowned, smothered or otherwise abused or neglected by caretakers.

Their stories shine a spotlight on the troubled social services agency that governor after governor has vowed to reform.

In many cases, the system is not learning from its mistakes. Out of the Shadows documents what a growing national child advocacy movement asserts: Without learning about these sad losses, future ones cannot be prevented.

About NECIR

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit news outlet based at Boston University and WGBH News. It is supported in part by other New England news outlets.

Credits

Jenifer McKim reported this project. McKim is a senior investigative reporter and a senior trainer at NECIR. She can be reached by email at jmckim@bu.edu or on Twitter at @jbmckim.

Clara Germani edited this project, and Joshua Eaton produced its online presentation. NECIR interns Shan Wang, Bianca Padró Ocasio, Weiwen Zhao, Tessa Roy, Brittany Comak and Jordan Abosch contributed.

Boston Globe staff reporter Todd Wallack also contributed to this report.

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