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DSS commissioner pledges change
Different practices might have helped save the life of 4-year-old Rebecca Riley, commissioner says.

By KYLE ALSPACH
GateHouse News Service

BROCKTON - Something as simple as a computerized case summary could have made a difference in the life - and death - of 4-year-old Rebecca Riley, the new head of the state Department of Social Services said.

The girl’s death last December at her family’s apartment in Hull came after years of state involvement, Commissioner Angelo McClain said.
TIM CORREIRA/THE ENTERPRISE
Department of Social Services Commissioner Angelo McClain

The agency had compiled a thick file of abuse-and-neglect complaints on the Rileys dating back to 2002. But social workers assigned to the case “had to go through reams and reams of case records’’ to get information about Rebecca, he said.

They could have made better decisions if they had a clearer view of what was going on in her life, something a case summary could have provided, McClain said.

While visiting social workers in Brockton on Wednesday, McClain, who took over for embattled former Commissioner Harry Spence this summer, said the Riley case highlights some of the changes he wants to make in how the state responds to cases of children at risk.

Rebecca died Dec. 13 of an overdose of drugs prescribed to treat a mental illness and behavioral disorder. Her parents, Carolyn and Michael Riley, have been charged with her murder. Prosecutors say the couple deliberately overdosed Rebecca.

There is no guarantee that better information management by DSS could have saved the little girl, but it may have increased the chances, McClain said.

“It’s one of the things that would’ve helped in that situation,” he said, noting that computerizing case summaries is one of the initiatives he is pushing.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep kids safe,” but there is plenty of room for improvement, he said.

In July, DSS began requiring that at least two case workers respond to every abuse or neglect report deemed an emergency. Sending two workers allows for a more thorough investigation in emergency situations, which make up about 6 percent of all reports, McClain said.

Also, all DSS social workers are now equipped with digital cameras to document injuries to children.

The agency is also trying to expand its staff and reduce social workers’ caseloads, McClain said, adding that some workers are handling 20 or more cases at a time. The average is 16.5 cases per social worker, he said.

He said he would like to see the figure closer to 15, but he did not say how many more case workers that would take.

DSS collaboration with law enforcement and emergency personnel also needs to be improved, McClain said.

“Law enforcement has a little bit of information, medical has a little bit, and we have a little bit. We have to kind of put all that together so we have a full picture of what’s going on with a family,” he said.

Gov. Deval Patrick picked McClain to replace Spence in the wake of several high-profile cases, including the Rebecca Riley case.

DSS also had been criticized for its handling of the case of Haleigh Poutre, a young girl under DSS watch who was beaten into a coma in 2005, and Dontel Jeffers, a 4-year-old who was beaten to death that same year in a DSS foster home.

On Wednesday, Jeffers’ foster mother, Corinne Stephen, was sentenced to eight years in prison for the death.

Kyle Alspach can be reached at kalspach@enterprisenews.com.