BOSTON (SHNS) – In the several years before a Fall River teenager with autism died of alleged starvation and neglect last fall, child welfare agencies in Massachusetts and New York made a series of baffling decisions that, rather than protecting him, put him in greater danger, Child Advocate Maria Mossaides has concluded.
In a lengthy and detailed report on the death of David Almond, the Office of the Child Advocate found that the Department of Children and Families missed key warning signs and made a decision that “was not clinically justified” when it returned Almond and his brother to the drug-filled home that the child protection agency had removed them from about three years earlier.
DCF Commissioner Linda Spears said the report was “absolutely devastating in terms of the horror and difficulty” of the case, and she and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders announced that the senior leadership of DCF’s Fall River office had been fired.
“The safety net for our most vulnerable children failed this child. It’s the courts and it’s mandated reporters, health care and the Department of Children and Families,” Sudders said. “We have work to do to ensure that our safety net is strong to ensure that all vulnerable children are safe in the commonwealth. The child advocate’s report clearly demonstrates the safety net failed for our children.”
On Oct. 21, 14-year-old David Almond was found emaciated, bruised and unresponsive at his father’s Fall River home, an apartment that the Office of the Child Advocate said was in “deplorable condition” and where substances believed to be heroin and fentanyl were found. He was soon pronounced dead, a death determined to be a homicide caused by “Malnutrition due to Starvation and Neglect in an Adolescent with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
David Almond was one of three triplet boys who had been under the watch of state child welfare agencies in New York and Massachusetts basically their entire lives. Most recently, the triplets had been removed from the Fall River apartment of their father, John Almond, and his girlfriend, Jaclyn Coleman, in Oct. 2017 “because of allegations of neglect and physical abuse of the children, parental substance use, unsanitary conditions of the home, medical neglect of the children, and the triplets’ excessive absences from school,” the child advocate said in a report.
But in March 2020, days before COVID-19 restrictions would make it harder for DCF and others to keep an eye on the children, two of the three boys were returned to the same Fall River apartment with John Almond and Coleman.
“Between his return home on March 13, 2020 and his death on October 21, 2020, David experienced abuse, starvation, and was deprived of a safe and nurturing home environment. Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman made ongoing and deliberate efforts to keep him from receiving any therapeutic or education services, and his presentation during monthly DCF virtual home visits was orchestrated,” the child advocate’s report said.
At another point, the Office of the Child Advocate says that, despite its “extensive” investigation, it “could not deduce, and no DCF personnel were able to articulate, any clear reason why David and Michael were reunified with Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman.”
John Almond and Coleman now face second degree murder and neglect charges. DCF is also now facing renewed questions after appearing to have stabilized from years of scrutiny as a result of several high-profile cases, including the death of a toddler at an Auburn foster home, the 2013 disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, whose body was later found along a highway in Sterling, and the case of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma after he was allegedly abused and starved by his father.
“The child advocate report is thorough and hugely distressing in the sense that it’s very clear from reading that report that David Almond’s life was — the loss of his life was preventable, and there were a series of systemic breakdowns over a long period of time,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday, adding that the report “is incredibly damning.”
The Office of the Child Advocate’s report includes several recommendations, including that DCF build in more rigorous safety assessments and evaluations of parental capacity to its reunification process, that DCF conduct a comprehensive review of its practices related to services for people with disabilities, and that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education collaborate with DCF to ensure child welfare officials have attendance information for children in state custody.
When it comes to Mossaides’ recommendations, Baker said he expects that “everything in there is going to get implemented, and it’s going to getting implemented on a statewide basis, and it’s going to get implemented as fast as it possibly can be.”
David Almond, 14
David Almond was born Feb. 25, 2006 in Syracuse, New York, along with triplet brothers Michael and “Noah,” whose real name is not used in the child advocate’s report. The brothers were each diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder around the time they turned two, the Office of the Child Advocate said. The office said the triplets had a special bond and that David “was a source of comfort and protection for them.”
“Let it be known by all that David Almond was a capable, caring, and courageous young man,” the office wrote in a tribute included with its report.
At school, David Almond was described as “the mayor” and as a strong reader who was building confidence and taking pride in his development, Mossaides’ office said. He loved cartoons and video games, especially Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, SpongeBob, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The child advocate said David could recite some episodes of SpongeBob entirely from memory.
“David was eager to please, he was earnest, and he was kind. David’s impact on those who worked with him and loved him was profound and everlasting,” the child advocate said. “His memory lives on far beyond the circumstances surrounding his death.”
A Long History
John Almond, the father of the triplet boys, and Coleman were each in DCF custody for parts of their own childhoods “with histories notable for abuse and neglect, mental health concerns, physical violence, and substance use,” Mossaides’ office said.
Between the births of the Almond triplets in February 2006 and June 2013, the New York Office of Children and Family Services removed the boys from their parents’ care three times “because of parental substance use, parental mental health challenges, deplorable living conditions, medical neglect of the children, inadequate supervision, and a general lack of basic care,” the child advocate said.
New York OCFS had custody of the boys from June 2013 until 2016 when their father, who had moved to Fall River, was granted legal custody even though OCFS had initiated legal steps to terminate the legal parental rights of both parents. The triplets’ mother, Sarah Almond, did not have contact with them from June 2013 until shortly after David’s death.
“Mr. Almond was granted custody of the triplets after years of minimal to no contact with them,” the Office of the Child Advocate wrote in its report. “This decision remains a mystery to the OCA as returning custody to Mr. Almond appears not to have been the appropriate legal action under the circumstances.”
John Almond moved his triplets to Fall River in the fall of 2016 and by June 2017 the Fall River office of DCF had received two reports alleging neglect and physical abuse of the boys. DCF “investigated but did not support allegations of neglect and physical abuse of all three children,” the child advocate said.
DCF opened a case into the Almonds in August 2017 “due to Ms. Coleman’s substance use, and concern for Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman’s ability to meet the needs of their newborn Aiden and the needs of the triplets.” All four boys — the triplets and their half-brother “Aiden” — were removed from John Almond and Coleman’s custody.
“This was the fourth time in the triplets’ young lives that they were removed from Mr. Almond for the identical pattern of abuse and neglect,” the child advocate wrote.
Over the next year and a half, John Almond and Coleman were minimally involved in an action plan set up to work towards reunification. By mid-2019, their involvement improved, the report said, and “Aiden” was reunited with Coleman and John Almond in July. In late December 2019, the DCF area office management “made the decision to begin the reunification process of the triplets with Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman … without any familiarity with the case and without conducting any administrative review of the case record.”
Among others, the congregate care facility where the triplets were living opposed the reunification process and made its objections known to DCF, the child advocate said. Coleman even made a comment to the DCF case management team “that reunification was moving too fast.” Still, the reunification process moved ahead. David and Michael were returned to Fall River on March 13, but their brother “Noah” remained at the congregate care facility and in DCF custody “due to his own self-advocacy and his refusal to return to the care of Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman,” the report said.
“The circumstances in this case are inexplicable to me,” Spears said Wednesday. “There is no rationale that accounts for the decision to reunify these children given their risks and their concerns with this family.”
Role of the Pandemic
“We feared when this pandemic began, that families would experience economic, social and other stressors, and that vulnerable children would suffer from lack of interaction with trusted adults, and that is tragically what happened in this case,” Mossaides said.
David Almond and his brother Michael were returned to their father’s custody on March 13, 2020 — three days after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency around the coronavirus, two days before schools were closed and about 10 days before widespread public health restrictions encouraged people to stay at home.
The wraparound services provider working with the Almonds notified the DCF case management team on March 20 that it was transitioning to virtual services only. Over the next several months, the child advocate’s report said, John Almond and Coleman “deliberately avoided contact” with DCF, the Fall River schools, the wraparound services providers, and a parenting support service provider including by claiming at times to not to have internet access sufficient to hold video calls.
Between March and September 2020, DCF held monthly virtual home visits with the boys but John Almond and Coleman were no longer engaging with other service providers and provided different agencies with conflicting information, the child advocate’s report said. Fall River schools staff “never saw or spoke with David or Michael” from the time they were scheduled to begin school in March until David’s death.
The report claims that Coleman repeatedly refused in-person visits citing fears of COVID-19 exposure and canceled or rescheduled appointments due to claimed exposure, “though these claims were dubious based on the family’s behavior including an alleged vacation they took outside of the home,” the child advocate’s office wrote.
“This family, and we suspect many others, have seized the opportunity of this pandemic to exploit the confusion and change in operating procedures to conceal the reality of their situations behind closed doors,” the report states. It adds, “Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman exploited the complexity of the pandemic’s impact on statemandated and authorized services. They blocked virtual contact with David and Michael by lying about their technology access and they successfully manipulated the professionals involved with the family.”
Sudders and Spears made clear Wednesday that while the pandemic made it harder for DCF and others to assess the welfare of the children, the crucial errors — including the decision to reunify the boys with their father — were made before the pandemic.
“Each office has… a variety of tools including risk assessment, clinical team meetings, et cetera, each of which could have and should have been used in this instance to be sure that the decisions were appropriate. That did not happen and that was well before the pandemic occurred,” Spears said. “So in my view, the pandemic was a complicating factor in this case, but not the fundamental cause.”