Did Massachusetts Fail Alleged Murderer Donald Rudolph?

Police say the 19-year-old killed three people. Should someone have seen it coming?

But back to the aging-out problem. The truth is, it’s difficult to determine the success rates of even the most promising policies for dealing with the issue. A big part of the challenge is that you’re dealing with a highly mobile population. Only a few studies have followed transition-age youth, and they have been conducted by independent foundations and think tanks (the Boston Foundation, for instance). The state, on the other hand, stops tracking young adults once they leave its care. McClain says the department has begun keeping tabs on small groups of former foster kids in accordance with a new National Youth in Transition Database, but a full set of data won’t be available until 2016. Until then, he’ll have to continue to fly blind on his policymaking and hope for the best.


When Donald Rudolph turned 18, he found himself with few options. He began drifting between beds at his father’s and mother’s houses, and signed up to continue receiving assistance from DCF.

Then, in April 2011, while at his father’s in Quincy, Rudolph inexplicably took a pellet gun, perched himself in the building’s backyard overlooking Washington Street, lined up his target, and began firing. He hit two women passing by on the sidewalk across the street. Later, police found the pellet rifle leaning against Donald Sr.’s back porch. The teenager was arrested and charged with two counts of assault and battery, a felony that carries a sentence of up to two and a half years. Rudolph was arraigned in May and released on his own recognizance to await trial.

That month, DCF also dropped Rudolph from its care. In a mind-boggling turn of logic, DCF spokes-woman Cayenne Isaksen says the department did so because Rudolph had been incarcerated during his time at school (the decision had nothing to do with the pellet gun incident). She adds that he was notified that he could request to continue receiving services from the department. He did not choose to do so. And with that, Massachusetts willfully cut ties with a man it knew was mentally ill and a threat to others.

Back out on his own and with little oversight, Rudolph was adrift and increasingly volatile. He wandered the streets aimlessly, according to one of his mother’s neighbors. The Globe reported that there was talk in the neighborhood that he’d killed several cats. In August, police arrested Rudolph after following him to a meeting with someone to whom he was selling marijuana. A month later, on September 7, he was arrested again, this time, according to police reports, for allegedly attempting to break into a Quincy home to recover drug money he said he was owed.

On September 14, as a result of that incident, Rudolph pleaded guilty to possession of burglary tools, as well as shooting the women with the pellet gun, and distribution of marijuana. Rather than being locked up, however, Rudolph received a two-year suspended sentence from District Court Judge Diane Moriarty, who put the 18-year-old back out on the streets with an order to receive mental health treatment. But a month later, his mother reportedly told the police that Rudolph was off his medications. And with no one to make sure he got the judge-ordered treatment, there was no guarantee
he would.

In the weeks preceding the triple murders, Rudolph faced increasing heat from authorities for his suspected involvement in a September burglary at the Upland Road home of Beverly McDermott, his mother’s neighbor. A number of items had been taken from the house, including jewelry, foreign coins, and 23 pills of Klonopin, which is used to treat seizures and panic attacks. Rudolph was staying with his father at the time, so Paula asked Donald Sr. whether he’d seen any of the stolen items. He had. Donald Sr. allowed police to search Rudolph’s room in early October, and, according to their reports, they found a backpack full of items taken from McDermott’s home. Rudolph was arrested for the fourth time since becoming an adult, charged with “receiving, buying, or aiding in the concealment of stolen goods,” and ordered to appear in court on November 29. Until then, though, he was set free once again.


Bounding around to multiple foster homes — as Rudolph did — has a damaging effect. That 2008 Boston Foundation survey of 812 youths who turned 18 while in DCF care found that 39 percent reported having had 10 or more placements over the course of their lives. Adults who used to be in foster care say that constantly moving when they were younger caused a deep-seated feeling of instability that has followed them their entire lives (although Rudolph passed through only two foster homes, between his mother’s and father’s places, and wherever else he could find to sleep, he clearly led a transient lifestyle).

The sad truth is that part of the problem with aging out — part of the reason so many 18-year-old foster kids are so poorly adjusted — is that too many children are treated badly even while they are in the state’s care. Massachusetts has one of the nation’s highest rates of children being abused or neglected while in foster care, according to government data. DCF itself reported in 2009 that .84 percent of foster children suffered abuse or neglect. While that might sound low, it doesn’t meet federal standards and actually places Massachusetts as the seventh-worst state in the country.

State officials attribute our higher rate to aggressive reporting. In other words, problems that some states might just ignore, Massachusetts deals with actively. “That’s why on paper it looks like we’ve got 22 times more abuse and neglect than Pennsylvania,” says the DCF’s McClain.

But one national advocacy group doesn’t buy it. After researching troubling cases in the state over a number of years, the New York–based group Children’s Rights is suing Massachusetts for violating the constitutional rights of children in its care. The class-action suit, expected to be heard in U.S. District Court in Springfield early next year, was filed on behalf of six children the organization says have been “badly harmed” by abuse, neglect, and numerous placements while in the state’s foster care system. Connor B. v. Patrick also accuses the state of not adequately preparing adolescents in foster care for living independently as adults, essentially targeting the aging-out issue. The state has already failed in several attempts to have the case dismissed or delayed.

“The commonwealth’s taxpayers are paying for a system that, rather than protecting children, is further contributing to damage that children have gotten already in a home environment,” says Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director at Children’s Rights, which has served as general counsel in lawsuits against child welfare agencies in at least a dozen other states. “It’s not a good system and has not been a good system for a long time. The state’s known about it but is not taking any action.”

McClain, of course, challenges those accusations. He says Children’s Rights has been “in the business” of suing child welfare systems for more than 20 years. “[I]t’s not difficult to go in and find some situations that didn’t go too well and paint them as representative of the entire system,” McClain says, adding that Massachusetts is in “good company,” being sued alongside states like Connecticut, Oklahoma, Texas, and Michigan.


A little more than two weeks before he was due back in court on the stolen-goods charge, Rudolph allegedly killed his sister, his mother, and his mother’s boyfriend. His lawyer — who pleaded not guilty on Rudolph’s behalf — says the teen has no memory of the tragic events of November 10, saying as recently as January that he believes his mother is still alive. When Rudolph’s sister Brittany attempted to visit him in jail, he refused to see her.

Brittany says she tries not to let thoughts of the murders distract her from pursuing her dream of becoming an art therapist after she graduates from college. But when she does think about the events leading up to the deaths, she sees a disturbing trail of missed signs and botched care by immediate family, police, and courts, as well as the schools and agencies tasked with helping.

Brittany says that in her final years, her mother would often make an ominous prediction: “Donald’s going to kill me someday.” “She would say it to the police and the caseworkers,” Brittany recalls, “and whenever she would say it to me, I would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. He’s your son.’ And look what happened. No one listened.”