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Lawmakers push Sununu to approve more DCYF workers

Monitor staff
Published: 4/16/2019 6:56:21 PM

A House committee voted Tuesday to recommend 77 new positions for the Division for Children, Youth, and Families, adding to a growing consensus in the State House to rapidly grow the agency amid high caseloads.

But the approach differs from one pushed by Gov. Chris Sununu, who has advocated for a smaller expansion. 

In a 16-0 decision, the House Children and Family Law Committee voted in favor of Senate Bill 6, a bill proposed by Sen. Jon Morgan that would add the 77 positions over two years, at a total cost of $8.6 million.

That bill passed the Senate 23-0 in February. And on Monday it received the endorsement of the Division for Children, Youth and Families Advisory Board, a 13-member body that meets monthly.

Under the plan, 27 protective child workers and nine supervisors would be added in Fiscal Year 2020, with 30 workers and 11 supervisors added in 2020. Thirty percent of the cost would come from federal funds.

The proposed staffing increase would be major increase to DCYF, which currently has 129 child protection service worker positions, counting vacancies. And it comes as the agency – thrust in the spotlight in recent years after a series of child deaths – has pressed to move beyond its days of heavy workload and high turnover.

But despite an infusion of dozens of new positions in 2017 and 2018, DCYF has struggled to attract new employees to its openings, and the rate of child assessment and child cases remains high.

Figures released by the Department of Health and Human Services indicate that the number of monthly assessments – incidents where assessments workers investigate claims of abuse or dysfunction – has been steadily climbing from 3,300 a month last September to 4,100 in February.

Vacancy rates ticked up over the same period from 12 to 15 percent, while the number of assessment workers in training or on leave has also jumped. The net effect: fewer workers are actually in the field: 91 in February, compared to 99 in September.

And that turnover has meant the caseloads are climbing up, after a year in which they fell. In September they stood at 34 average cases per worker; in February they were 45.

Lawrence Shulman, a professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work and the chairman of the DCYF Advisory Board, cautioned against pointing fingers at the agency.

“The workers are as much under stress and they’re experiencing burn out,” he said. “It’s very hard for workers in a dysfunctional system to help dysfunctional families. It doesn’t work.”

The new positions – if filled – would likely allow the agency to achieve the recommended national workload standard of 12 open cases per caseworker. But in his budget proposal, Sununu opted for a slower approach.

The governor’s budget would authorize 62 new positions would be authorized in DCYF for the coming biennium, but would provide funding for only 26 of them. The other positions could be funded via excess appropriations in the DHHS, or by request to the state’s Fiscal Committee, which would determine whether they were necessary based on caseload and vacancy rates and fund them via surplus money.

Sununu has painted the approach as fiscally sound way to allow money for all 62 positions to become available as the positions are filled and the funds are needed.

“Instead of setting money aside for positions that were not able to be filled immediately, Governor Sununu’s budget authorized the creation of 62 new positions on the recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services,” spokesman Ben Vihstadt said Monday.

Democrats, meanwhile, have slammed that strategy and accused Sununu of shortchanging the agency’s needs.

“The rhetoric from the governor’s office about authorized positions is meaningless; they only funded 26 positions,” said Concord Democratic Sen. Dan Feltes on Tuesday.

And lawmakers on both sides of the issue have shown willingness to opt for Morgan’s approach. Rep. Kimberly Rice, a Hudson Republican who sits on both the House Children committee and the Advisory Board, argued the state needed “more money than 26 positions.”

“We all know how badly the positions are needed at DCYF,” Rice said. “I think that it’s going to cost money. That’s just a reality.”

Shulman said all sides appear to be converging.

“I think the legislation’s going to go through, I think the funding’s going to go through,” said Shulman. “... I think the issue’s going to be the governor.”

In a statement Tuesday, Sununu applauded the sentiments of SB 6, which he said “seeks to build upon the progress we made with child welfare reform in 2018 and rebuilding our child welfare system has been a priority since day one.”

Ahead of an expected months-long budget negotiation process, however, the governor declined to commit to a clear position.

“I continue to believe we need to put more frontline workers in the field to protect our most vulnerable children, and will review the final language of the bill should it reach my desk,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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