Report: DCYF not adequately protecting kids at risk for abuse

Published: 12/19/2016 4:39:45 PM

The state isn’t adequately protecting or providing services to children at risk for abuse and neglect, according to a long-awaited independent review of the Division for Children, Youth and Families.

The 100-page report released Monday found the state’s child protective services is understaffed, often deems allegations of abuse or neglect unfounded, and offers few services for families.

The findings come amid continued calls for reform at DCYF, which fell under scrutiny following two high-profile toddler deaths within a year. The review also comes on the heels of yet another fatality – Roger Dana is accused of beating his 2-year-old daughter to death in Berlin last month.

The Center for the Support of Families didn’t specifically detail those deaths, but reviewed more than 200 random cases to come up with 20 recommendations.

The center found that DCYF acts swiftly when children are in immediate danger, but doesn’t adequately address those who face the risk of future harm.

Social workers often deemed allegations of abuse or neglect unfounded, even though evidence existed and DCYF rated the child’s risk for future abuse as high, the report found. Others were called unfounded if parents agreed to seek treatment for substance abuse or correct abusive behavior.

“We’re seeing very often a pattern of repeat reports alleging the same things and a trail of unfounded reports,” said center Vice President Jerry Milner when presenting the findings. “If the child has been exposed to an unreasonable amount of risk, the report ought to be founded.”

The review found gaps in the state law sometimes deterred action. It noted social workers feel restricted by the child protection statute that sets a “high bar” for determining neglect. About half of those surveyed for the report said their hands were tied by state law, and that unless a child had been visibly injured, they could not issue a finding of abuse or neglect.

Recommendations included strengthening the neglect statute, increasing worker training and performing more thorough investigations into alleged abuse. But the report emphasized that any progress is contingent on hiring enough workers. DCYF has high levels of staff turnover and the center’s preliminary report recommended the state bring on an additional 35 social workers above the current 85.

“It’s not reasonable to expect the quality is going to improve dramatically until you increase the number of staff on the ground,” Milner said.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who was recently elected to the U.S. Senate, called for the review last year and on Monday urged state lawmakers to adopt its recommendations.

“The review makes clear that while the goal of reunifying families is critical, it cannot come at the expense of a child’s safety, and this report puts forward a number of policy and statutory recommendations to help improve our system,” Hassan said in a statement.

Despite calls from advocates, the report didn’t specifically look at the cases of 3-year-old Brielle Gage and 21-month-old Sadie Willott, who had been under DCYF supervision before they were killed in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Hassan’s office has said it’s not possible given the ongoing criminal cases.

Former state senator David Boutin said the report doesn’t adequately outline how to prevent such child deaths.

“It feels like it’s a lot of fluff,” said Boutin, a Hooksett Republican who helped spearhead a state commission to examine child fatalities. “Kids are in a very vulnerable situation and end up being killed, and they didn’t address that in any fashion.”

Reforming child protective services is poised to be a major issue this Legislative session, though it’s not clear what level of success the recommendations will find. The report suggested DCYF keep reports of abuse and neglect on file for longer periods of time to help workers keep track of potential patterns of abuse. But a bill to do just that was voted down by the Republican-controlled House earlier this year.

Some progress is being made. State Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeff Meyers hopes to have DCYF staffed around-the-clock in February and the key contract comes before the Executive Council on Wednesday. DCYF is currently open until 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

“The recommendations in this review are comprehensive, and it is evident that a great deal of work must be done to address them,” Meyers said.

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


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