N.H. House panel recommends more jobs for DCYF, makes cuts to Senate plan

  • The Senate Finance Committee votes in favor of a bill to provide more funding for the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families on April 25, 2018. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/25/2018 8:35:27 PM

The House Finance Committee signed off on a bill to shore up the Division for Children, Youth and Families on Wednesday, adding more than 30 new positions and more than $4 million intended to help restore services, reduce workloads and prevent future child deaths.

Voting unanimously, 23-0, the panel opted to approve Senate Bill 592, designed to address long-standing concerns around the staffing and resources available to the beleaguered agency.

But the bill provides less in funding than was approved by the Senate last month, and less than what Gov. Chris Sununu had supported earlier, setting up potential negotiations should it pass the House floor next week.

A pair of deaths under the agency’s care in 2014 and 2015 has spurred media scrutiny, investigations and calls for change for years. In 2016, a comprehensive outside review of the agency found deep problems and recommended that it increase the number of caseworkers and restore funding to “voluntary services” for at-risk families.

Last year, the Legislature appropriated money for more than 30 new workers at the agency, but problems with a caseload backlog and high turnover persist. The national guidelines for maximum simultaneous cases taken per child welfare worker is 12; New Hampshire is hovering at an average of 42, according to Joe Ribsam, director of DCYF.

To address that, SB 592 would provide for the hiring of 17 additional child protection social workers, responsible for investigating reports; eight child protection service workers, tasked with helping families once they are deemed to be at risk; two supervisors; two clerical positions; and two new attorneys to help ease along cases.

And the legislation would add $1.5 million in voluntary services, which are offered to families who have been referred to the agency as “at risk” but whose circumstances do not yet warrant the opening of a formal case. That funding has been cut since 2011; for years, families in that category have fallen through the cracks.

A February murder-suicide in Derry involving a father and his 6-year-old son might have been prevented had the funding for voluntary services been in place, according to Moira O’Neill, director of the newly created Office of the Child Advocate, an agency watchdog.

Members of the Finance Committee in both parties praised the increase in funding and positions Wednesday.

“This does not get us to 12 (cases per worker), but it certainly helps move us in that direction,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord.

“We’re feeling confident that we’re on the right track,” said Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover.

But advocates noted the committee’s plan comes several million dollars short of the Senate’s version, which included about $8 million in overall funding and passed unanimously. And while it restores funding to voluntary services, opening doors for at-risk families, it eliminates $1.5 million in incentive funds – designed to go to counties and municipalities for prevention programs – that the Senate version had included.

“The bill as it is now is a really good start,” O’Neill said Wednesday. “But the sad thing is that when you are reliant upon a political process to make sure kids are safe, you find yourself in a position to be satisfied with something that is not enough.”

While the bill as written would help to reduce caseloads, more funding could be used for services to head off problems before they become cases – or tragedies, O’Neill added.

In crafting its version, the House Finance Committee took a frugal approach; much of the money set aside would come from federal funds; the rest would come from money the state expects to receive back from the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which lapsed in October.

It is unclear how the Senate will respond to that approach should the bill pass the full House; legislators and state officials have been eyeing that CHIP money – estimated at $26.7 million – for other uses.

But Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, expressed frustration at the cuts made to the House bill.

“While I can appreciate the effort to compromise, there is no reason these modest, long overdue child protection measures should be cut back,” he said. “Period.”

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

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