BARBARA HOWARD: Abuse and neglect still take the lives of children here in Massachusetts. For four years, Jenifer McKim a reporter with WGBH news partner the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, has been tracking the numbers. She recently got last year's data from the State Department of Children and Families — DCF. And Jenifer's here in the studio to walk us through those new numbers. Hi, Jenifer.
JENIFER MCKIM: Hi there.
HOWARD: So what does the data tell us?
MCKIM: So the numbers have been worse in other years. This year, 13 children died of deaths linked to abuse and neglect, four of whom were in open cases with DCF. But those numbers are actually better than other years. In 2013, 39 children died — 16 of whom were under the watch of the State Department of Children and Families.
HOWARD: So tell me some of their stories. What do the stories tell us?
MCKIM: There are still tragic stories of children whose cases have been missed, who could have likely been saved. One of whom was a boy named Kenai Whyte, [a] 3-year-old from Roxbury who died at the hands allegedly of his stepmother, and he had been in the system for years before he died. There were several cases of children who died of sudden unexpected infant death with unsafe sleep — children who were co-sleeping with their parents, etc. Several of those were also with DCF, and that has been often linked to substance abuse.
HOWARD: Substance abuse among the parents?
MCKIM: Exactly. The majority of the kids were not under the state watch. So those are cases we're not sure whether we could have done more or less because the state really keeps a lot of information from us, like they don't tell us if people had called to say the child was at risk, but they did not open a case. So we don't know, in many cases, whether they knew or not whether this child was troubled beforehand.
HOWARD: So some of these cases where they die in their sleep, it's chalked up to what — to SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome?
MCKIM: Well these ones are considered unsafe sleep, and that's why they're in the category of abuse and neglect, because these children were either put to sleep on their bellies or sleeping with their parents. And so there's a lot of controversy about the unsafe sleep deaths. But these are ones that the state considered there [were] some problems with the way the parents treated them.
HOWARD: Maybe not abuse but at least neglect?
HOWARD: Well you said that last year's deaths while up from the year before are down overall over the course of several years. Why do you think the numbers have dropped?
MCKIM: The numbers were really high in 2013 — just about the time when there [were] some high profile deaths — you had Jeremiah Oliver, the 5 year old Fitchburg boy who disappeared and then was found later on the side of the road. You had that awful story of Bella Bond, who was found in a trash bag in the Harbor. So these cases created a lot of scrutiny on child deaths in Massachusetts, and we at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting focused on a lot of the cases that hadn't been high profile. There [were] 110 kids between 2009 and 2013 who died of abuse and neglect, a third of them under the watch of the state. So Gov. Charlie Baker spoke publicly about wanting to make it safer for troubled kids, and they really made changes in the department, including reducing caseload, adding budget and changing the way they assess risk.
HOWARD: Now I've often heard about a pendulum swings in child welfare where the states — they lurch from not really protecting children enough with some terrible outcomes that make headlines, and then pulling too many kids out in response, pulling them out of homes that might have been salvageable. What's happening here?
MCKIM: Yeah, exactly. So, during this period when there is a high scrutiny and a lot of concern about kids, there was an increase in the number of calls going to DCF saying "these kids are at risk." The social workers opened more cases and they pulled more children away from their homes. Some people say that's the best thing to do and they're concerned, however, that now there's a foster care crisis and there's not enough places to house children. Other people say not that many children should be pulled from their homes at all.
HOWARD: And you're saying that some social workers and defense attorneys for the kids are finding problems with that, just finding places to put them?
MCKIM: There's a term now called "lobby kids" — children who are pulled away from their homes and there's nowhere to put them and they end up spending hours at the DCF lobby while they're waiting to find a new home for them.
HOWARD: So "lobby kids" — it's become an actual term?
MCKIM: It is. I've heard stories of social workers carrying bassinets to their desks and making calls trying to find a home for these children. And also just having these kids waiting in lobbies, waiting for them to find a place to put them maybe just for one night and then put them somewhere else the next day.
HOWARD: So tough on the kids. Thanks for coming in, Jenifer.
MCKIM: Thank you very much.
HOWARD: That's Jenifer McKim of WGBH News partner the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.