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FOX25 Investigates: State warned years ago about school investigators phoning it in

by: Eric Rasmussen, Erin Smith Updated:

BOSTON - A child advocate sounded the alarm nearly three years ago that school regulators were investigating suspected abuse at day cares and residential schools by phone, FOX25 Investigates has learned.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen first uncovered in November that state license regulators at the Department of Early Education and Care were “phoning in” investigations of suspected abuse – rather than visiting residential schools and day cares in person.

Now, one child advocate tells FOX25 Investigates she raised concerns about the problem in emails to EEC in 2014 – but the agency failed to take action.

FOX25 Investigates obtained emails Angela Smith of HEAL sent to the agency, writing that investigators should have interviewed children in person at a residential school facing abuse allegations “instead of asking the program director by phone and leaving the investigation at that.”

“I think it’s outrageous,” Smith told FOX25. “In my years of child advocacy, I know that is not how you handle a special victim’s report.”

While the Department of Children and Families looks into specific allegations of abuse, EEC licensing inspectors investigate the school programs and day cares where suspected abuse happened.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen caught up with state Education Secretary Jim Peyser and asked why EEC is still conducting so many investigations by phone.

“So, phone investigations, as well as in-person investigations depend on the circumstances,” Peyser told FOX25 Investigates. “There's some judgment that has to be made about how to most effectively follow up on allegations.”

But Peyser also said EEC is asking for more money to do more in-person investigations.

“Hopefully we'll be able to build more capacity to do more of it, so we don't necessarily have to make choices that are sub-optimal,” said Peyser.

Last year, EEC Commissioner Tom Weber told state lawmakers his agency had just five investigators to oversee 9,000 day cares, after-school programs and residential schools across Massachusetts.

But Smith says she isn’t satisfied.

“Lack of funding is no excuse when children's lives are at risk,” said Smith.

FOX25 Investigates uncovered in November that the state agency in charge of overseeing day cares and school programs rarely opens investigations into complaints of neglect and abuse – a troubling pattern uncovered by FOX25 Investigates.

And when EEC did assign its school inspectors to look into complaints, FOX25 found that much of the work was done by phone – rather than visiting in person.

FOX25 Investigates reported in November that EEC opened nine investigation reports at Chamberlain International School, a residential school in Middleboro, over a year and a half but made just one in-person visit by an EEC investigator during that time.

Those reports detailed allegations of abuse, a school staff member meeting “fully naked” with a student and another student “dizzy and disoriented” and hospitalized after taking the wrong medication – all incidents EEC investigated by interviewing the school’s assistant director “via phone.”

A spokesman for Chamberlain School sent FOX25 Investigates an email this week saying it “self-reported” all of the cases in question to the state and insists “the proper state agency” – DCF – investigated those cases “on-site.”

“Chamberlain International School has faith in the state reporting and licensing agencies,” said the school in a statement.

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