Story of the Year No. 2: The flaws of N.H.’s Division of Children, Youth and Families  

  • A bench in Livingston Park in Manchester is dedicated to Brielle Gage. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Friday, December 29, 2017

For years, two words have haunted the New Hampshire’s Division of Children, Youth and Families. “Too late.”

The agency was too late for 1-year-old Sadee Willott, who in 2015 was killed by her mother despite 30 previous meetings with child protection workers. Employees charged with protecting kids missed a paperwork deadline for court that might have made the difference for 3-year-old Brielle Gage, beaten to death by her mother in 2014. Other cases emerged of children smothered or drowned, as cases against the parents piled up and languished.

The fatal incidents mounted, and with them frustration, and in December 2016, the agency faced its first reckoning. An outside review commissioned by then-Governor Maggie Hassan found that the agency was severely understaffed and overburdened, that child protection workers had deemed a high proportion of credible cases of abuse “unfounded,” and that workers often did not follow up on cases that didn’t rise to the highest levels of urgency.

The findings, reached by the Center for the Support of Families, were damning. Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers vowed reforms, and some legislators pressed for changes to the agency’s report classification system. But the story didn’t stop there.

A Monitor investigation in April uncovered details pointing to numerous warning signs missed ahead of the deaths of Gage and Willott – two of the highest-profile death cases. Figures showed that New Hampshire had the lowest percentage of founded abuse reports in the country – 4.7 percent – far below the 19 percent national average. The average annual caseload amount – 139 – was fifth highest for child protection workers in the country, ahead of a national average of 67.

Since 2010, records show, at least eight children have died at the hands of family members while under the watch of the agency.

The revelations added further urgency to a growing internal crisis, as did a Monitor report in February that found that the agency rapidly closed 1,500 cases in a matter of two days in February 2016.

In an interview at the time, Ashley Rossiter, a former DCYF worker who refused to close some cases when asked, said the pressure came from management.

“I am not comfortable saying no danger when I haven’t appropriately assessed the family,” said Rossiter, who filed a discrimination suit against the department after she was fired in 2016. “Just because we’re in crisis mode doesn’t mean these children don’t need to be checked on.”

A leadership change quickly followed. DCYF Director Lorraine Bartlett was scheduled to retire April 1; Gov. Chris Sununu put her on administrative leave in March. Her successor Maureen Ryan served as interim director until October, when the department hired Joseph Ribsam, deputy commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families, to take over.

Throughout the crisis, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers, first appointed in January 2016, stayed on as commissioner.

“A number of things may have occurred in the past,” he said in April. “But I want to look forward and work with the Legislature and the governor now.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature kicked into action, pushing through legal reforms and appropriating money to create more staff positions. By August, the department had increased its total number of positions from 84 to 125.

Some issues are still unresolved. Given the inherent stresses of the job and a diminished workforce industry-wide, simply creating the positions doesn’t mean they all get filled; by September, significant portions of those 125 were either still in training or had yet to be hired. Turnover remains a critical obstacle. And the number of cases flooding the department is increasing on the back of the opioid crisis, swelling the backlog even as new staff are hired to reduce it.

“Until we get the caseloads down, the whole system is overloaded, and that’s something I recognize,” Meyers said in September.

New Hampshire’s Division of Children Youth and Families has been ravaged by tragedy, high workload, low morale and poor management for years. Three separate legislative review panels – and an incoming office of the child advocate – have been set up to hold it to account moving forward. An outside review of a selection of the rapidly closed cases is due to release a report in the coming weeks, Meyers said this month.

And with a new director in Ribsam, a new DHHS senior division director focusing on DCYF in Christine Tappan, and new funds for new positions, the agency has a chance to to turn a corner in 2018.