Did Massachusetts Fail Alleged Murderer Donald Rudolph?

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

Donald Rudolph

Illustration by Josue Evilla

On the morning of December 10, 2011, Donald Rudolph woke up alone in a cold cell at the Norfolk County jail. It was his 19th birthday, and the one-month anniversary of his time behind bars. For Rudolph, one month in the same place was actually a long time. He’d spent the past two years bouncing around foster homes, his parents’ houses, and the street. In jail, at least, he was getting three square meals a day.

Rudolph’s chaotic life reached the peak of its frenzy on the evening of November 10, 2011, when police responded to a call about suspicious activity inside his mother’s Weymouth home. Through the first-floor windows, officers arriving on the scene at 10 Upland Road could see a young male inside the house, though he quickly disappeared from view. A few minutes later, they found him trying to escape through a small basement window. When they pulled him out, he seemed disoriented, and his clothes and hands were covered in blood. Rudolph was no stranger to the cops, and a few of them would have recognized his bony face. In the incident report, they wrote that he mumbled, “I fucked up” a couple of times. “You will see when you go inside the house.”

Inside, it was a bloodbath. Police found the body of Frederick Medina, 52, the boyfriend of Rudolph’s mother, lying in the living room under a scattering of stuffed animals, his throat cut. A Beanie Baby had been stuffed into his mouth. In a garage just off the house were two female bodies — those of Rudolph’s mother, Paula, 50, and his 24-year-old sister, Caylin — both beaten to death with a hammer. Caylin had also been stabbed. On the kitchen table sat the apparent tools of death, a bloody hammer and knife, wrapped in a place mat.

News coverage of the murders focused, appropriately, on the brutality of the killings. People wondered how this kid, a recent high school graduate who could be found smiling broadly in photos with his sister on Facebook, could have done what police were saying he did.

Those who knew Rudolph, though, had seen signs of trouble for years. In fact, things had gotten so bad that he’d been placed in foster care. But exactly 11 months before the events at his mother’s house, Rudolph had turned 18 and become a legal adult. He’d “aged out” of the system, and in short order was homeless, jobless, and involved with drugs. In the months leading up to the alleged murders, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. During that period, he was also arrested four times for an array of alleged crimes.

Brittany Rudolph, Donald’s 22-year-old sister (she wasn’t home the evening of the murders because she was away at college), says state officials missed clear signs that her brother needed additional resources. Furthermore, she says, Donald’s time in the foster care system was marked by abuse and neglect.

“The way they handled it — the system,” she says, “they basically created a criminal.”

 

Rudolph was very much aware that he had problems, Brittany says, recalling the time he sat at the family computer, Googling different types of mental illnesses. “I have this,” Rudolph told her matter-of-factly, pointing at the screen. “And I definitely have this.”

It turned out that Rudolph was right. Last summer, a state psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizophrenia, depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. Brittany says her brother seemed tormented by his shortcomings. “He was aware that he wasn’t all there,” she says. In fact, when Rudolph was arrested last September, just two months before the murders, Weymouth police wrote in their report, “Donald stated that he is schizophrenic and paranoid, and that we [the police] make him nervous.”

Rudolph and his siblings lived first in Quincy, but after Paula and his father, Donald Sr., split up about 15 years ago, Paula took the kids and moved to Weymouth. Donald Sr. was rarely around the house, and Paula battled addiction issues, Brittany says. And when her children got older, two of them did, too. Rudolph was busted for selling pot and, last October, Caylin was arrested and charged with stealing a friend’s clonazepam, a tranquilizer. Brittany says she was able to avoid some of the madness of the house by spending many nights with friends. But with no dad at home and a troubled mom (who also suffered from multiple sclerosis), her brother became unmanageable. One of his foster parents told the Herald that when Paula said no to Rudolph’s frequent requests for cigarettes, he would wreck the house with a baseball bat, and that, one time, he threw his mother down the stairs.

In 2005, Rudolph began attending the South Shore Educational Collaborative, a Hingham school for children with emotional and behavioral problems. Officials there say they never saw a violent side, that Rudolph was clearly troubled, but also a hard worker who reached out to less-popular kids. “Some students got to the point that they actually looked up to him,” says executive director Henry Perrin. “He did have that softer side, because I think he felt safe in this environment with the people.”

But even as he made progress at school — he’d eventually graduate — his problems at home escalated until, in 2006, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) intervened. A spokesman declined to disclose just what services were provided to the Rudolphs, but the department typically comes in when it suspects children are being abused or neglected. In any case, DCF’s involvement ended after just six months. Two years later, though, the department returned and, after investigating for a full year, determined that Paula was unable to care for her son. Rudolph, at 17, was placed in foster care.

According to the bleak picture Brittany paints, foster care may have only made things worse. In his first foster home, she alleges that Rudolph’s windows were barred and he was locked in his room from the outside. (Citing confidentiality, DCF offered no official response to this claim. For the same reason, Lutheran Social Services, which facilitated Rudolph’s placements, also declined to comment, except to maintain that Rudolph received quality care.) Rudolph began having run-ins with the law, and Perrin says he was sent away to Department of Youth Services facilities “more than once” during his senior year for committing crimes.

Then, in 2010, Rudolph caught a break. He was placed in the care of former New England Patriots cornerback Ronnie Lippett, with whom Rudolph was “at his best,” according to Brittany. Since his playing career ended in 1991, Lippett has taken a number of foster children into his home, handling some of the state’s toughest cases. So Lippett and his wife knew to hide their kitchen knives from Rudolph. Lippett later told the Herald that Rudolph was “heavily medicated” while living in his home.

People who know Rudolph say Lippett seemed to find a way to reach the kid, acting as a kind of father figure. Studies have shown that youths in foster care who have even one strong connection to an adult who is not their parent have better long-term outcomes than those who don’t. “Ron was so good to Donald,” remembers Ryan Connelly, the father of Caylin’s twin girls and a longtime neighbor of the Rudolphs.

But then everything fell apart. Lippett told the press that one morning in July, as he attempted to wake Rudolph up for school, the teen hit him, breaking his jaw. Rudolph was arrested, but Lippett didn’t press charges, instead filing a restraining order against him. Thus ended the only supportive adult relationship the troubled teen had ever really had.

And then something even worse happened to Rudolph: He turned 18.

 

Young people in Massachusetts who turn 18 while in foster care have a choice. They can strike out on their own, return to a family situation that’s often just as chaotic as it was when they were younger, or request to continue to receive DCF assistance. In 2011, 794 youths turned 18 while in foster care, and 615 of them, 77 percent, elected to continue receiving assistance (though just 457 remain in placement today).

Until they turn 23, the department offers these individuals services such as continued foster placement, independent living programs, a modest daily stipend ($25), and access to resources such as counseling, tutoring, and educational support. State officials say that in the past five years, Massachusetts has increased its spending on them to more than $60 million (the department’s total budget is nearly $790 million). Then again, though aged-out youths make up 16 percent of the people in DCF’s care, that $60 million represents just 8 percent of the department’s budget. DCF commissioner Angelo McClain points to a number of programs that were added in that five-year period, including a network of foster care alumni, a Foster Child Bill of Rights, more internship and summer employment programs, and housing and life-skills training.

But here’s the problem: The state’s efforts to help youths in its care transition successfully to adulthood are largely ineffective.

The Boston Foundation conducted a study of the problem in 2008, and its findings were bleak: 37 percent of former foster kids older than 18 had experienced homelessness; 54 percent were unemployed, and half of those with jobs worked fewer than 20 hours a week; 30 percent had been threatened or injured with a weapon; 25 percent had been arrested in the prior 12 months; and 11 percent reported being raped. Unsurprisingly, 59 percent of the teens surveyed in the study reported feeling “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row,” an indicator of depression. That was four years ago, and the state has added new programs since then, but with numbers this daunting, they can only have done so much to help.

Of course, these problems are hardly unique to Massachusetts. A number of studies have shown that somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of all prisoners nationally are former foster children. But experts say that Massachusetts child services, for all its efforts, suffers from two main problems: a lack of focus and a lack of money. For starters, DCF is severely understaffed — the typical caseworker deals with close to 16 families at a time and, though the state has a program designed to help those caseworkers reach aged-out kids, that program employs fewer than 20 counselors. Given those ratios, only a lucky few get the assistance of a personal mentor.

In its report, the Boston Foundation observed that when it comes to new legislation aimed at helping adolescents and young adults, “the difficulty seems to be in implementing these policies into consistent practice.” Again, that study is four years old, but those who have seen the department up close believe it continues to be true. Martha Henry, who directed the state-run Center for Adoption Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School before it was defunded last year, saw DCF from the inside, training its employees. “I think they wanted to be progressive,” Henry says, “but I’m not sure it always trickled down to the field.” She says the department also suffers from “initiative overload,” meaning swarms of new policies are never completely absorbed and practiced by field-level social workers. In some cases, she says, upper management would be preaching one policy, and the fieldworkers would be practicing its exact opposite. Henry, for instance, recalls repeatedly finding that caseworkers were reluctant to allow adolescents to sleep over at a friend’s house out of a belief that the friend’s parents would need background checks. Not only was this untrue, Henry says, it also went against a principle being championed at the highest level of DCF: that adolescents in foster care should experience “normal” activities with their peers.

  • Rachel Fafard

    I think this young man needs to be shown both love and forgiveness. Mental illness is nothing to overlook yet too often it falls through the cracks in our care systems.