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Police are frustrated with DCF reporting.

Byline: Paula J. Owen

The incident involving a newborn's death in Grafton has highlighted yet another systemic issue within the Department of Children and Families regarding the way reports of possible neglect or abuse are handled.

The Grafton Police Department was criticized by the agency and governor for allegedly not following protocol when an officer faxed a 51A report in the early morning hours April 3 for 4-week-old Aliana E. Lavigne who was found dead in her home eight days later.

According to DCF's policies, 51A reports of possible abuse or neglect that are deemed under the agency's jurisdiction and in need of further review, are supposed to be investigated immediately if it is an emergency and within three days if it is a nonemergency. That investigation includes viewing the children at risk.

But the written report is only half the process, DCF said, and the officer was required by law to follow up with a phone call within 48 hours. Subsequently, DCF alleges the fax was overlooked for six days, delaying the investigation process that didn't start until after the baby had died.

Several Worcester County police chiefs told the Telegram & Gazette that faxing 51A reports is done routinely, especially on off hours such as evenings, weekends and holidays because DCF's 24-hour hotline is not staffed around the clock. The process is frustrating, they say, because officers often get an automated message and there is no option to leave a voicemail.

When a hotline employee does pick up, they do not want to hear details about the incident and tell officers to fax over the information, the chiefs said.

There are shortfalls in the process, law enforcement officials say, and training is needed.

Auburn Police Chief Andrew J. Sluckis Jr. said late on a Sunday evening an officer made several attempts to fax in a 51A report (a request for an investigation into possible abuse or neglect by a child's caretaker), but it would not go through. The officer asked the records clerk to fax it to DCF on Monday morning, the chief said.

After six attempts by the clerk, the fax finally went through, he said.

"We do call first, but after hours you get an automated message and you're not able to leave a voicemail,'' he said. "If you get a person, you're told to fax in a written report and 51A.

"One problem consistent on weekends is the fax machine doesn't work. We called DCF six months ago and told them there was a significant problem with their fax machine or telephone line and we were told they were looking into the problem and correcting it, but the problem is still persistent. It is frustrating.''

In another recent incident, DCF requested Auburn officers conduct a welfare check on a child, and when the officer called DCF to report his findings, he was told someone from DCF would call him back in a half-hour. That never happened, the chief said.

"We try to call verbally and we get no response, so we continue to fax 51As in,'' he said.

Mandated reporter training is needed, he said, to get everyone on the same page about what should be done, especially on off-hours.

"We would welcome any training DCF is willing to come in and provide,'' he said. "It is difficult to adhere to policies that may have changed over time.''

DCF has never contacted the Auburn department about mandated reporter training since he started working there in 1989, he said.

Leicester Police Chief James J. Hurley said his officers also have trouble sending faxes to DCF.

"For an extended period of time we couldn't get a fax to go through to them,'' he said. "It is frustrating because you can't follow up with a phone call on off hours.''

In November 2012, he said he required all officers take a free online mandated reporter training course offered through the Middlesex District Attorney's Children's Advocacy Center at

He said his department is supportive of the Worcester District Attorney's efforts toward CAC certification.

"They are bringing mandated reporter training under the umbrella of the DA's office so it is much more available to law enforcement,'' Chief Hurley said.

Southbridge Police Chief Daniel R. Charette said there are serious shortfalls in DCF's mandated reporting process.

"What we always do is fax things in,'' he said. "We do exactly what other departments do and fax things in. With all serious issues, we call, but when you do call, they say they want a fax. You try to do the best you can, but there are serious shortfalls.''

Chief Charette also serves on the executive board for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. The organization has "been begging over the last five years,'' he said for funding for training.

"When you continually cut programming and cut training, problems arise,'' he said. "Just this year, they finally returned some money to police training, but it took tragedies for them to wake up and say, 'Keep up to date with this.'

"I can't think of a worse way for it to happen than children being hurt or dying,'' he continued. "We want to do our job, but give us a little help.''

DCF did not immediately respond to questions about the issue.

Oak Bluffs Chief Erik G. Blake, who is president of the chiefs association, said the protocol that officers follow as mandated reporters is "institutional knowledge'' passed on by officers with more time on the department, rather than put out by DCF.

"The training needs to be there,'' he said. "It is frustrating when something like that falls through the cracks. It really is something we need to get a helping hand with.''

Officers working late at night need the tools to do their job, he said.

"It is frustrating because they try to do their job correctly and there are roadblocks in the way,'' he said. "And, it is not just officers. All people who are mandated reporters -- even in the school system -- they aren't quite sure what they are supposed to be doing.

"It used to be there were serious consequences. Let us know what you (DCF) want or when something changes, don't leave it up to us. There is a will to do it correctly, but when you don't have the proper training, it is nearly impossible to keep up, unless you have good partners to help you. It is something they should address.''

Timothy J. Connolly, spokesman for the Worcester District Attorney's Office, said his office offers mandated reporter training in-person and has trained more than 500 mandated reporters in the last year. Those interested must contact the DA's office, he said.

Additionally, his office is in the process of establishing a CAC.

CACs often pick up issues that fall through the cracks with DCF, such as mandated reporter training.

"They are coming for a site visit later on this year,'' he said. "It will be a DA-based CAC as opposed to a hospital-based or nonprofit, vendor-based CAC.''

The Worcester DA's CAC will be located at 180 Main St., across from the courthouse, in space currently used by the DA's child abuse unit for similar functions.

But, it is unlikely any new training will help if DCF continues to fail to pick up the phone or receive the fax, law enforcement officials say.

Contact Paula Owen at Follow her on Twitter @PaulaOwenTG.
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Owen, Paula J.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 2, 2014
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