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New Hampshire struggling to keep child protective services office open past 4:30 p.m.



Monitor staff
Thursday, October 27, 2016

It will be 2017 by the time child protective services stays open past 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, state officials said Wednesday.

That’s a far cry from the 24/7 around-the-clock coverage the agency sought in order to better ensure the safety of children in abusive homes.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers told the state Commission to Review Child Fatalities that his department has had trouble recruiting the qualified workers needed to field complaints of abuse and neglect until 8 p.m. Half of the 15 employees needed to staff the new shift have been brought on so far.

“This is difficult work, it’s challenging work,” Meyers told members of the commission.

The Division for Children, Youth and Families has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of two child deaths and a lawsuit filed last week that accuses the state of failing to protect two young girls from sexual abuse in 2013.

A plan to provide 24/7 coverage at the agency – which is currently open only on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. – stalled after no venders responded to the state’s request. A second revised proposal was released last month, but if it too draws no takers, Meyers said the state would have to consider a sole source contract.

DCYF is contending with a number of employee-related issues. Commission members called a recent independent report, which found serious staff deficiencies at the agency, “disturbing” and “alarming.”

“What I am really concerned about are the children who have possibly fallen through the cracks,” said state Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican. “You can’t expect a caseworker to have upwards of 70 cases.”

The report found just 20 percent of child assessments were completed within the required 60-day window, leading to a large backlog of open cases.

It also found DCYF doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with reports of child mistreatment. While national standards recommend a social worker take on no more than 12 active assessments at a time, DCYF workers interviewed for the report said they were assigned an average of 15 new cases a month.

“Why has this been allowed to go on for so long? Why aren’t there internal measures that would throw up some red flags to say we are falling behind here?” Carson asked.

The report called for the division to bring on an additional 35 child protection workers. Meyers said the department has already reallocated 22 positions to DCYF and is now working to fill them. He is considering raising the pay scale for child protection workers and plans to ask for more staff in the next state budget.

“I absolutely intend to advocate for every needed position to make sure we have a staff who can deal with this,” he said.

A full independent review of DCYF is due by the end of the year, and Meyers said he will draw additional recommendations from the report.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan asked for the report after the death of Sadence Willot, a 3-year-old who was allegedly killed by her mother. DCYF had been involved with the family, prompting calls for reform.

Meyers acknowledged the need for an independent ombudsmen or inspector general to review how DCYF and other HHS agencies perform. The commission has been working on a proposal to create an Office of the Child Advocate.

The commission did not discuss the civil lawsuit filed last week against the state and Easter Seals. It alleges workers failed to protect two young girls, then ages 4 and 18 months, from sexual abuse by their parents despite warnings from family members and police. Several commissioners said they hadn’t yet read the suit, which contains graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse endured by the girls.

“It is unlikely we can have any kind of productive discussion around that because it is a matter under litigation,” said commission Chairwoman Lucy Weber, a Democratic state representative. “We can’t go into any specifics of that, other than to acknowledge that it is there and it is of real concern to everybody involved.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)