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Contract will review only 100 of 1,500 closed DCYF reports



Monitor staff
Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Despite requests for a full-scale review, the state plans to audit only a small portion of the 1,500 child abuse and neglect investigations that were rapidly closed out last year.

The Division for Children, Youth and Families is proposing to pay Eckerd Kids $82,000 to evaluate 100 cases by December and determine whether they were handled appropriately. Depending on the findings, the division may choose to review additional cases, according to spokesman Jake Leon. It remains to be seen whether any investigations will be reopened.

The Executive Council is expected to vote Wednesday on the sole-source contract with Eckerd Kids, a Florida-based nonprofit that has faced controversy for its own management of child protection in Florida’s Hillsborough County. Over 18 months, more than 40 children were forced to sleep in offices and other unlicensed locations after Eckerd Kids was unable to place them in foster homes, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Chicago Tribune reported that five children died while in the organization’s care over a recent two-year period.

A spokeswoman for Eckerd Kids said four of the deaths were “accidental,” related to unsafe sleep and natural causes, while the fifth remains under investigation.

It’s not clear whether the division was aware of those reports when it picked the nonprofit to conduct the review.

In response to Monitor questions, Leon said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers has requested Eckerd provide a written explanation, which Meyers will be prepared to discuss at the council meeting.

Lawmakers have named DCYF reform a priority since an independent review found child protection workers face crushing caseloads and the agency closed investigations even when parents admit to abusive behavior.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu put the agency’s director on leave in March, after the Monitor reported DCYF suspended normal procedures to “administratively close” hundreds of investigations over two days in February 2016. Some had gone untouched for months and were closed without a fresh check on the children or a full assessment of the family, according to interviews and records obtained under a right-to-know request.

Agency leaders said the cases were “low-risk” and the agency had determined the children were not in immediate danger. Still, Sununu said in a statement that his office would evaluate whether to bring in outside counsel to determine “where the system broke down and more importantly, review the status (of) all 1,520 assessment closures and determine whether any should be re-opened.”

Under the contract, Eckerd would develop a tool to review 100 of the investigations and make sure the children’s potential for harm was adequately assessed. The sample cases would be chosen in conjunction with DCYF, according the contract. The agency picked Eckerd without using a competitive bidding process because the nonprofit is the only developer of the safety analysis tool that will be used in the review, according to the contract cover letter. Leon said Eckerd has performed similar audits in other states.

Since child protection records are kept confidential, information about the closures are shielded from public view.

Ashley Rossiter, who was fired from DCYF last year and is now suing for employment discrimination, said all the closed cases deserve another look. A few weeks after one neglect report was administratively closed, the family involved was back in the system and the children had to be removed due to substance abuse, Rossiter said.

“They can’t just keep pushing all these kids to the back-burner because they don’t have the time, the money or the resources,” she said.

The review is one of several DCYF contracts set to come up at Wednesday’s council meeting. Under a separate agreement, Eckerd Kids would train DCYF workers in “Rapid Safety Feedback” software the organization developed to flag high-risk cases that deserve more follow up.

Casey Family Programs would underwrite the cost for two years, after which the division would have to pay the $100,000 annual fee. Several other states in the region, including Connecticut and Maine, have worked with Eckerd to implement the software, according to the organization’s website.

The division is taking other steps to try to cut down on the remaining backlog of open abuse and neglect investigations, including giving workers overtime pay to help close them. At the State House, lawmakers are considering a number of policies meant to improve DCYF. One would create an office of the child advocate to provide independent oversight of the division.

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