April is Autism Awareness month and it’s unfortunate that among all the good stories that normally are chronicled during this month about the heroics and successes of children and young adults with autism and the families, educators, non-profit organizations and social service agencies that support them, there is a tragedy involving a teenage boy with autism that should not be forgotten.
The death of 14-year-old David Almond of Fall River, a boy with autism who was discovered dead of starvation and covered in vomit last October in the grotesquely unfit home of his drug-addicted father, John Almond and girlfriend Jaclyn Coleman, is a heartbreaking and horrific story that’s not just about “multi-system failure” as his death was described in a report released several weeks ago by the state Office of Child Advocate.
His death should serve as a sobering acknowledgment that certain pandemic-driven policies hastily enacted last year at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, which prioritized virtual over in-person interactions across a range of health and human service agencies as well as school systems, left vulnerable children like David largely unseen by the adults and systems which should have supported him and could have saved him.
The report, which comes after a six-month investigation, details how even by last fall, DCF caseworkers from the Fall River office conducted only a “virtual” check-in with the family, at a point when most school systems had returned to partial, in-person learning and there was no justifiable COVID case threat to prevent an in-person visitation.
The boy was found dead, weighing just 80 pounds later that month.
“Every single safeguard failed David,” Director of the Office of Child Advocate Director Maria Mossaides said at a recent press conference.
The report details how David, who was a triplet with brothers Michael and Noah, both of whom also have autism, were all removed from the home in 2017 and living in a residential placement setting at Devereaux Behavioral Health in Rutland. Questions remain unanswered as to who and what was behind the fateful decision by DCF to transfer David and Michael back to their father’s unfit home at the start of the pandemic last year.
(Michael was also discovered in a deeply malnourished condition last October, but survived and now lives in a residential placement home with the third brother, Noah. A toddler, who was also found in the home and is a separate child of the father, was also removed.)
It should be noted that both the Fall River school district and the DCF stated in the report that they made repeated attempts to reach the boy’s father over a series of months through emails, phone calls and other correspondence, but true, in-person interactions and wellness check-ups never happened.
“When we want to see students, we need to actually see them,” Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan said about the school system’s failure to find a way to see David and his brother Michael in person regardless of the obstacles the father was placing in their way.
The boys never checked into remote learning or attended a day of school after last March.
Two supervisors in the Fall River DCF have since been fired.
Meanwhile, Almond and Coleman were arrested last October and are facing an array of criminal charges in the case.
Some of the findings in the report coincide with observations about pandemic-driven policies that have been raised in a recently published article by two professors and researchers from Boston University’s School of Public Health.
In an article entitled “Science and Society are Failing Children in the COVID Era,” Nason Maani and Sandro Galea question whether the consequences of many of the pivotal CDC recommendations surrounding school closures were as well thought out as they should have been because of the domino effect it had on a school district’s ability to interact with vulnerable students, who are often under the supervision of DCF staffs.
They note the original CDC guidance for school closures gave minimal mention of the potential harmful impact the decision could have, particularly on students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with autism and other special needs disabilities.
David Almond, who fit the profile of both of those groups, never had COVID, but sadly, he needs to be remembered as a victim of the pandemic.