Official: DCYF still has 2,800 open investigations

Monitor staff
Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The state’s child protection agency is still facing thousands of open abuse and neglect investigations, despite past efforts by agency leaders to shrink the backlog by suspending normal procedures.

As the state Senate is set to tackle several bills designed to reform the Division for Children, Youth and Families on Thursday, roughly 2,800 investigations remain open, according to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeff Meyers, who has asked the agency to put forward a plan to begin cutting down on open cases.

“It will be done over a reasonable amount of time ... and in accordance with procedures and guidelines,” he said.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and Meyers announced Monday that they were placing DCYF Director Lorraine Bartlett on administrative leave following a Monitor story that revealed the agency closed more than 1,500 open investigations over two days in 2016.

A nationwide search for Bartlett’s replacement is underway, officials said. In the meantime, DHHS Division Director Maureen Ryan is filling the role.

DCYF has faced calls for reform since two children under agency watch were killed within a year of each other in 2014 and 2015.

While some changes have been slow to take hold, agency officials said others are progressing.

After months of delay, DCYF can now accept reports of abuse or neglect around the clock, Meyers said. Before this month, people who reported suspected child abuse on nights or weekends were sent to an answering machine.

The 24/7 coverage was one of 20 recommendations made in a recent outside review of the agency. The report found that DCYF didn’t have enough staff to keep up with incoming reports and was not adequately protecting children from future risk of harm.

The 24/7 plan was first proposed last year, but hit delays when the agency struggled to find a vendor to answer agency phones after hours. In December, the Executive Council signed off on a $610,240 contract with Wediko Children’s Services to provide those services. On-call DCYF supervisors will respond to the reports if needed.

The review recommended the agency hire 35 more child protection workers to investigate claims of abuse and neglect. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget proposal allocates an additional $2.2 million to DCYF annually, but the House and Senate have yet to approve the funding. The two-year spending plan isn’t likely to take effect until June, meaning that if the money is granted, the agency couldn’t begin hiring until this summer.

The division has already hired some new staff to work second shift at DCYF until 8 p.m., past the current closing time of 4:30 p.m., Meyers said.

The state Senate will vote Thursday on a handful of DCYF reform bills, but one is considered likely to fail. The legislation would require DCYF to keep reports of abuse and neglect on file for longer periods of time, which agency officials say is needed to help staff recognize potential patterns. The Senate Finance Committee voted, 3-2, in opposition of the measure.

Another bill with strong Senate support would create the office of the child advocate to provide independent oversight of DCYF.

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