My Turn: New Hampshire is still failing at-risk children and families

For the Monitor
Published: 2/7/2019 12:24:56 AM

Recent state government announcements that staffing problems in the Division for Children, Youth and Families have been successfully addressed by last year’s addition of new social worker and supervisor positions are simply not accurate.

In fact, a significant number of New Hampshire children remain at risk of neglect and/or emotional, physical or sexual abuse. The same is true of at-risk families.

These issues tend to remain below the surface and emerge publicly only when a child or other family member is brutally beaten or killed, and only then for a very brief time. New Hampshire has a significant opioid epidemic. This contributes to a dramatic increase in new abuse allegations and parental neglect cases.

Last year’s small increase in DCYF staff is not sufficient to meet the need for either child protection interventions or ongoing family support services.

I applaud DCYF and Department of Health and Human Services staff. Those I have met with from the commissioner to front-line assessment and family service workers are competent, compassionate and caring. The core problem is the availability of resources to allow a dedicated staff to do its jobs. Simply put, a dysfunctional system cannot help dysfunctional families.

While efforts are underway to use new federal funding to improve addiction treatment services, as well as a more coordinated community-based program of support for family services, these do not address the essential DCYF understaffing problem.

In December 2018, there were 119 protection worker (CPSW) positions. Of these positions, only 108 were filled. Of these 108 workers, 19 were in training or on leave resulting in only 89 actual protection workers in the state. These are the workers assigned to investigate complaints of neglect and abuse to determine if intervention is necessary, determinations that are in most instances challenging and emotionally wrenching for the workers.

For example, do circumstances require the removal of children from their family to a more protective foster care placement?

These 89 workers had to deal with 1,018 new cases referred for assessment or new allegations last December alone. The total number of open assessments at the end of that month was 3,899. This resulted in an adjusted average caseload for each CPSW of 44 cases compared to the nationally accepted maximum number of 12 cases.

New Hampshire CPSW workers were responding to a workload 3½ times the accepted national standard. This is a key reason protection worker burnout, sick leave and turnover are as high as they are with a 16 percent vacancy rate.

Recent research, including my own, has concluded that workers dealing with serious child abuse often experience a secondary trauma aggravated by the need to manage impossible caseloads.

Similar problems of staff shortage and increasing caseloads can be seen in the December 2018 DCYF statistics for family services staff. These are the individuals who work with families after assessments are completed. These workers focus on supporting families, to help them keep their children at home. If a child is removed, they then provide support services to hopefully reunite the family when appropriate.

On Dec. 31, 2018, there were 1,161 open cases involving 2,043 children.

Of the 102 family services positions, only 90 were filled in December. Eleven were in training or on leave resulting in 79 filled positions. These workers carried an average of 15 cases involving 26 children. The caseload is lower than that for protection caseworkers but still high for what is a more time-intensive, ongoing counseling service.

The current statistics are all the more concerning when viewed against the background of recommendations in three reports on DCYF published since 2016. The first was commissioned in 2016 after the deaths of two children who were known to DCYF. It was an independent Quality Assurance Review of DCYF (the Milner Report), delivered in December of that year. After reviewing 318 DCYF assessments of alleged maltreatment, the report identified 20 recommendations. These 20 included the following six: 1) a seriously overloaded DCYF assessment workforce; 2) a workforce that could benefit from additional training; 3) a restrictive child protection statute that sets a high bar for determining neglect and risk of harm; 4) a restrictive interpretation of the statute leading to DCYF staff inability to take needed action to protect children at risk; 5) a lack of options available to protect children; and 6) a lack of an effective service array even if options existed to compel families to engage in services to protect their children.

Two more recent reports, a 2018 Federal Children and Family Services Review (C&FSR) and a 2018 N.H. Adequacy and Needs Assessment (A&NA), identified five Milner recommendations that had subsequently been implemented but cited 15 as areas “in need of improvement.” These included the following:

■The assessment workforce should carry no more than 12 open assessments (the most recent report has them carrying 42).

■Hire enough assessment supervisors with the intent of reducing the current vacancy rate to provide one supervisor for five workers.

■Make deliberate efforts to provide for the well-being of professional staff in order to reduce turnover and absences due to work demands.

■Resolve the current backlog of overdue assessments.

■Expand the availability of mother-child substance abuse treatment facilities.

■Ensure that all children in the household or who are related and visit the household routinely be seen and interviewed if possible, during an assessment regardless of parental consent.

■Reconceptualize the process of identifying safety threats and risks of harm associated with incoming reports of maltreatment.

Although several improvements have been implemented, it is clear, from one or both of the two recent reports, that much more needs to be done. A first step would be passage of the current Senate Bill (SB 6) working its way through the Legislature, which significantly increases the number of positions for social workers and supervisors in the fiscal year 2020 and 2021 state budgets.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Morgan and supported by 13 other senators, will provide funding for additional positions requested by DCYF administrators as part of their “additional priority needs.” The large-scale hiring of new staff will signal that the state has recognized the need to address these crucial child welfare issues.

If the bill is not passed, and signed by the governor, the so-called “efficiency budget” will allow the staffing problem to remain in effect. There are other identified priority needs in the proposed DCYF budget that should also be funded to ensure staff have the resources to do the demanding job they were hired to do.

If you are concerned about the current state of child welfare and the protection of children and families at-risk in our state, I urge you to contact your legislators and the governor to make clear your support of SB 6 and other funding measures that will contribute to bringing the state of New Hampshire in line with other New England states in its ability to protect children and strengthen families.

New Hampshire’s children are waiting.

(Lawrence Shulman is a former dean and professor of the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. His child welfare textbook was published by the National Association of Social Workers. He is currently a member of the New Hampshire DCYF Advisory Board).

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