Capital Beat: Data suggests DCYF may be turning a corner

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Monday, March 12, 2018

Last month, New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth and Families hit something of a milestone.

For a year, the agency had seen a fluctuating stream of children placed into new homes by child protective services – 47 one month, 61 the next.

But in February, the trend reversed. For the first time in years, more children left protective placements such as foster care (40) than were added in (38). More children were leaving care than coming in.

It was a small but welcome development for an agency on a slow path to rehabilitation. “I don’t want to say that this is a new trend, but it’s a data point that points in the right direction,” said Joseph Ribsam, DCYF director.

And it’s not the only spot of good news for DCYF lately. Figures released this week indicate that the agency, buffeted in recent years by hardship and scandal, may be gradually turning a corner.

Hiring is up and workloads are down. In August, 102 of 125 of the total assessment worker positions were filled. Today that number stands at 119. In August, just 71 of those 102 employees were trained. Compare that to 90 today.

Those new hires are helping to alleviate burdens. The average number of assessments assigned per worker has plummeted since early 2016: down to the low-40s from the mid-90s, according to the new figures. And assessment workers are steadily moving their way through what had been a formidable backlog of assessments – the ones from families who call in and can’t be assessed yet, who wait for answers while decisions are kept on hold. That pile is approaching lows not seen since 2013, hovering at 2,000 this January compared to the 3,500 two years before.

Overall, it’s hard not to see a picture of progress. And for DCYF, the gains provide clear relief. For, years the agency has been slammed by misfortune. Two high-profile deaths of toddlers under its care brought a rush of painful scrutiny. A wide-ranging independent review in 2016 found severe deficiencies, including among its stretched workforce; a separate review last December drew attention to the importance of tackling the backlog. So on paper, it’s easy to take rising hires and decreasing backlogs as a welcome sign.

The full picture, unfortunately, is more complicated.

Start with the child placements. Amid the agency’s new figures, presented to governor and Executive Council on Wednesday, is a startling trend: The number of children placed into care by child protective services is skyrocketing. In January 2015, the number of New Hampshire children ordered by a court to be removed from their homes and placed elsewhere was 622. In January 2016, the number was 765. This January, that number was 1,246 children – a doubling in fewer than three years.

To Ribsam, the former New Jersey child protection official who took over as DCYF director in October, those figures are more than a little troubling. For children caught up in difficult family situations, foster care is a last resort, Ribsam says. The kids who end up there are the ones the system didn’t get to in time, who didn’t receive the resources that might have kept their family together.

“Every time you take a kid into foster care, you’re traumatizing that child,” he said.

And the bigger story the numbers tell is alarming, he said. A system with such a spike in child protective placements is a system whose balance is out of whack, one that’s become reactive instead of preventative. “It’s not indicative of a healthy system,” he said.

Meanwhile, tragedy has brought the problem into relief: the death of a 6-year-old in Derry, apparently killed by his father in a murder-suicide despite years of outreach to the state agency. Ribsam wouldn’t comment on that incident – which is being investigated by the agency’s new oversight director – citing requirements of confidentiality.

This month, members of the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu say they have an answer. A trio of bills proposed by Sen. Jeb Bradley would provide long-absent funding for voluntary services, and remove barriers to access such as repayment requirement. The new services would fit in a piece of the puzzle Ribsam says is lacking right now: support provided to families at the beginning of their struggles, before the cases and the court orders and the separations. Members of both parties have expressed quiet confidence that the legislation will pass.

It’s not a permanent fix. It isn’t even clear how far the $1.5 million appropriated in the bill might stretch. And other potential challenges face the agency. State fiscal year 2017 ended with the highest number of accepted assessments in 10 years – 12,000 – all of which will work their way through the system in time.

Ribsam says to be wary of overreading the new caseload data. “It points to progress but it certainly doesn’t point to us being done,” he said.

Still, for an agency whose path to full functionality was never expected to be easy, any step forward is a step worth recognizing.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)