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DSS ignored 'red flag' of abuse

Though 7-year-old told of being burned, he was sent home

David J. Privette was charged with assault and battery on a child. David J. Privette was charged with assault and battery on a child.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Levenson and John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / March 20, 2008

MIDDLEBOROUGH - The state Department of Social Services allowed a 7-year-old boy to stay in a home where his mother's boyfriend, a former convict who had served time for crack cocaine possession and assaulting a police officer, beat the boy with a belt, burned his genitals with lit cigarettes, and urinated on his head, police said yesterday.

DSS officials had known of neglect in the home as far back as 2002 and were informed of three reports of possible physical abuse since late last year, including reports of a beating with a belt in December and burns with a cigarette on March 4. But DSS did not notify law enforcement officials until Monday, when teachers discovered burn marks on his genitals, pelvis, and buttocks.

"This kid was sent home to be tortured for another 13 days, as far as I'm concerned, because somebody dropped the ball," Middleborough Police Chief Gary J. Russell said in an interview yesterday. "It makes you want to cry. This kid was tortured."

State social services officials said yesterday they had investigated all the reports and had been to the house at least four times since the original report of physical abuse on Dec. 19.

On their first visit in December, they concluded the boy had been spanked with a belt and urged the mother, Michelle Henry, and her boyfriend, David J. Privette, not to use corporal punishment. Case workers returned to the house in February and found nothing wrong, officials said. They went again after the boy told his school nurse March 4 that Privette had burned him with a cigarette, but never checked the boy's body for burn marks or other injuries.

"We'd have to acknowledge that there was a red flag that was presented by the allegation that child had been burned, and that probably should have been checked," said Marilyn Anderson Chase, assistant secretary for children, youth, and families in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. "If we determine that the child has been injured or burned, it should have been reported to the police."

Chase said DSS would fully review the case to determine whether the agency missed earlier signs the boy was being physically abused.

Privette, 22, was arraigned Tuesday in Wareham District Court on two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery on a child. He pleaded not guilty and was held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing Tuesday.

The boy and his 3-year-old sister were taken into DSS custody Monday. Henry declined to speak to a reporter yesterday.

DSS first came into contact with Henry in 2002, after receiving a report that she was neglecting her son, then 2 years old, state officials who oversee the agency said yesterday. Social workers ordered Henry to attend parenting classes and ultimately concluded she had responded well to the training.

Over the next several years, DSS received sporadic reports of neglect but nothing indicated physical abuse, Chase said.

Henry started dating Privette several months ago, state officials said. He had been recently released from the Suffolk House of Correction, where he served a one-year sentence for possession of crack cocaine and assaulting a police officer in Boston.

Around that time, the boy appeared to change, said some of Henry's neighbors in the small public housing complex where she lived. The boy used to be "chunky" and outgoing, but in recent weeks he had lost a significant amount of weight, was kept inside by his mother, and seemed withdrawn, said one neighbor, Jamie Santos. "I didn't even recognize him."

On Dec. 19, the boy was misbehaving in class at Memorial Early Childhood Center and was taken to the nurses office. There he told a nurse that his mother and her boyfriend had hit him with a belt, according to a police report filed Monday. When the nurse told the boy she would have to call his mother, he pleaded with her not to, crying out, "No, I don't want no more whippings," according to the report.

The nurse called DSS, which sent case workers to the boy's home and initiated closer contact with the family.

On March 4, the boy told a special education teacher that he didn't want to go home because Privette "puts a cigarette on his private parts," the police report said. A school nurse examined him and found a V-shaped bruise on his back. He said he had fallen on ice. Again, the school called DSS. It was unclear what caseworkers did during a visit to the boy's home.

"There is no indication that anybody actually physically looked" for burn marks on the boy, Chase said. Henry told caseworkers that she had broken off her relationship with Privette.

On Monday, the nurse contacted DSS officials a third time, after the boy told her that Privette had beaten him again with a belt and urinated on his head while he was taking a bath. DSS then contacted the Plymouth district attorney's office, which contacted police. Privette was arrested that day.

Maria Cramer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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