- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - A state report on the death of a 2-year-old girl in foster care found the Department of Children and Families failed to properly evaluate the qualifications of a foster mother and determine whether the home was safe for children.

The internal review, released Thursday, revealed an “unacceptable” series of failures within the embattled department, Gov. Charlie Baker said in promising corrective steps. Two DCF employees have been reassigned and could face further disciplinary action.

Avalena Conway-Coxon and an unidentified second toddler were found unresponsive Aug. 15 at an Auburn apartment complex. Avalena was later pronounced dead at a hospital. The second child was hospitalized in critical condition but survived and is now in a long-term rehabilitation facility.

The case was among several recent tragedies involving children who had received services from the state’s child protection agency.

“I get sick when I hear these stories,” a somber Baker told reporters.

Police have not released a cause of Avalena’s death, but the DCF report said medical findings suggest the children suffered heat stroke, likely from “prolonged exposure to a high temperature environment.”

In approving the application of Kimberly Malpass to become a foster mother in 2013, DCF did not follow its own rules in determining whether she was a capable parent, and allowed too many children to live in too small a foster home, the review said. There were six children - three of them foster children - in the home at that time.

“It should not have been a foster home,” said Baker. “If you actually followed the practice standards and the policies that were in place, it would never have been licensed.”

A message left on a phone number listed for Malpass in Auburn was not immediately returned.

No charges have been filed in connection with the child’s death. A spokesman for the Worcester district attorney said Thursday the case remains under investigation.

Jennifer Conway, 27, Avalena’s biological mother, died last month from a suspected drug overdose, authorities said.

Malpass was an “enthusiastic foster parent,” the report said, who cared for nine foster children at various times over an 18-month period, and she received positive reviews from several caseworkers. The review, however, suggested DCF staff failed to identify or act on several potential red flags, including Malpass’ own extensive health issues and a pediatrician’s warning that she appeared overwhelmed by the medical needs of her three biological children.

Also disregarded, the review said, was a report from an Auburn school that suggested “chronic neglect.” And DCF staff failed to contact local police, which would have revealed that officers had visited the home 25 times between 2008 and 2013, though none of the visits led to an arrest.

Following the Aug. 15 incident, the agency took custody of the three biological children and placed the third foster child in another home.

Baker on Monday announced a DCF reform plan that would include a new standardized policy for assessing the level of risk facing a child and a mandatory review of every family member’s history with DCF, including criminal history and parental capabilities.

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Online: DCF report: https://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dcf/reports/case-review-malpass-9-30final.pdf

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