Child advocate warns of eroding years of progress keeping abused kids safe and alive

  • Brielle Gage

  • Sadee Willott

Monitor staff
Published: 5/22/2021 2:05:15 PM

While Jason Taylor worked for the Division for Children, Youth and Families, he was forced to make heart-wrenching decisions about how to triage his time every day.

“You’re faced with the challenge to see one of these two families and both of them are in crisis,” he said. “It’s like which crisis is worse, which child is more in danger?”

Years back, Taylor worked at the division’s Manchester offices for 10 years while the agency had among the fewest child protection workers per capita nationwide and ranked top five in the country for highest worker caseloads. He said he loved his job, but often worked 50 hours a week to manage a caseload that was sometimes six times the national recommended workload.

“I was going home and sort of unable to pay attention to my family,” he said. “When I got home, my brain was scrambled eggs.”

Those were the bad years, back when high turnover and low staffing levels led to a lack of thorough investigations. Children reported to the agency were often left in abusive homes despite clear and convincing evidence they were in danger. Between 2011 and 2016, at least eight children in the state died from abuse after they had been involved with Division of Children, Youth and Families.

The deaths of two of those children, Sadee Willott in 2014 and Brielle Gage in 2015, proved to be a turning point, sparking “a total transformation of the child welfare system,” said Moira O’Neill, the director of the N.H. Office of the Child Advocate.

She said beginning in 2016, the legislature and the governor tried to rebuild from the losses of 2010 and 2011 when the budget was devastated and DCYF crippled to help families and meet its statutory mandate of protecting children.

Dozens of positions were added, millions of dollars were invested in the child protection system, case loads became manageable. Children remained alive.

New proposed reductions to staffing levels – 22 case workers – in the state budget stand to undo that progress and bring the state back to those bad years, O’Neill fears.

“It’s like you’re building a house, and you’ve got all your supplies to build the house and then you start taking beams out,” O’Neill said. “Sometimes in New Hampshire, there’s this cycle where you think, ‘Well, we invested this year; the problem is solved.’ That’s not how it works.”

Left unprotected

Child protection workers were involved in Sadee Willott’s life just days after her birth. Over the first 21 months of her short life, case workers met with Sadee’s family 30 times to check whether the toddler was being physically abused and neglected. Every report was dismissed, except for the last – but by then it was far too late. When the ruling was made, Sadee had already been dead more than a year.

In the year before Brielle Gage died, DCYF received at least five reports of abuse and neglect against the toddler or her four brothers, who ranged in age from nine months to 8 years old.

All five children were removed from their mother’s care in April 2014 when she came under police investigation for beating her oldest son with a studded belt. By June, DCYF returned the children to the abusive home with little explanation, even while she still faced felony charges for the belt beating. By November, two days before Thanksgiving, Brielle was beaten to death by her mother, Katlyn Marin. An autopsy would later reveal 3-year-old Brielle suffered eight fractured ribs, bruises all over her small body and bleeding in her brain.

A Monitor analysis of those cases in 2017 and interviews with experts revealed problems within the agency meant to keep children safe. Facing increased caseloads and high staff turnover, DCYF rarely substantiated reports of abuse or neglect, provided few prevention services to at-risk families, and in several cases didn’t follow its own investigation protocols.

In the years following the children’s deaths, the N.H. Legislature rallied around DCYF, allocating millions of dollar to add 77 new positions over two years and tens of millions to fund preventative programs. The Legislature even created the Office of the Child Advocate, which O’Neill leads.

With the added state support, O’Neill said staff at DCYF felt like their workload was manageable. O’Neill received fewer calls from people complaining that case workers weren’t responding to them. The average caseload for each employee dipped below 20, a far cry from the 70-plus cases they juggled in 2017.

‘The resources they need’

But now O’Neill is concerned interest in protecting the division may be slipping.

The recent budget proposed by Gov. Chis Sununu calls for defunding 22 DCYF positions. Though he later asked the House to put money for these positions back into the budget, lawmakers did not heed his recommendation.

Democratic state senators raised an amendment to put funding back in for those positions, which ultimately failed in a 4-2 committee vote on Tuesday.

Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican and the chair of the finance committee, said he voted against funding the 22 positions because DCYF already has tens of vacant positions.

There are currently 41 open child protective service worker positions, which O’Neill attributes to low pay and unstable work environments due in part to defending positions.

“Just because they’re not filled doesn’t mean they’re not still needed,” she said.

Daniels said rather than funding DCYF positions, more resources should be funneled into preventing the abuse in the first place through programs that address mental health struggles and drug abuse.

O’Neill said losing these positions is especially worrisome because reports of child abuse and neglect have increased as a result of the pandemic.

The number of cases DCYF has accepted for further assessment nearly doubled from March 2020 to March 2021. As more cases come in, the number of cases per worker has climbed up.

“I can guarantee you, if something bad happens, people are gonna say, ‘That DCYF, it’s a terrible agency,’ ”she said. “DCYF can’t be a good agency if we don’t support them and give them the resources they need.”

Taylor said cutting positions tends to have a snowball effect. After one person leaves, their cases are distributed to the remaining staff who are already overloaded and then pushed to their own breaking points.

Taylor and many of his colleagues started taking medication to handle the immense stress and seemingly unobtainable expectations back when he was at the job. He said it was common for staff to cry at staff meetings.

“How can you not miss something when you’re asked to do a job every day that’s impossible?” Taylor asked.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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