Kelly calls out Sununu, vows adequate DCYF funding following report

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly criticizes Gov. Chris Sununu's leadership after a critical federal report on New Hampshire's DCYF, Aug. 21, 2018 Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly criticizes Gov. Chris Sununu's leadership after a critical federal report on New Hampshire's DCYF, Aug. 21, 2018 Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 8/21/2018 5:07:51 PM

A federal report critical of New Hampshire’s Division for Children Youth and Families set off calls of action from officials Friday. Now, it’s proving political fodder in the race for governor.

Alongside state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord on Tuesday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly said the report demonstrated poor leadership by Gov. Chris Sununu and vowed to make funding the agency a primary budget focus if elected. 

“If we can fund tax breaks for the wealthy corporations, then we can fund the agency that protects the most vulnerable children in New Hampshire,” she said, swiping at the Republican-led business tax cuts passed in 2017. 

Released by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, Friday’s 42-page report found that the Granite State was “not in substantial conformity” with all seven of its testing criteria, including efforts to keep children safe and adequately follow up on reports in time. New Hampshire’s DCYF has faced a crisis in recent years, after low funding, low staffing and high caseloads contributed to the deaths of several children under its care and prompted a string of audits and legislative committees. 

The problems plaguing the agency did not begin with Sununu; the agency has been underfunded for years, and many high profile cases of child deaths and abuse – often leading to high-profile lawsuits – occurred before he entered into office. In March 2017, two months after taking office, Sununu cast out DCYF director Lorraine Bartlett, an appointee of Gov. Maggie Hassan, placing her on administrative leave after a Monitor report revealed the agency had closed 1,500 abuse cases en masse over two days the previous year.

But to Kelly, the findings in Friday’s report amount to a failure of leadership from the present governor. By not pushing for funding for “voluntary services” in the 2017 two-year budget, Sununu helped perpetuate a lapse in services for a year longer than necessary, she argued.

Voluntary services – those offered to families whose situations don’t lead to a founded report – were cut by the Legislature in 2011; they haven’t reappeared in a state budget since. A comprehensive audit in 2016 found that their absence had prevented the agency from providing help to children whose situations later worsened.

In February, the apparent murder-suicide of a father and his six-year-old son in Derry drew renewed attention to the lapse in the program. A later report by Office of the Child Advocate Moira O’Neill found that DCYFcould have intervened sooner if voluntary services had been funded and available to the division’s caseworkers.

This year Sununu and the Legislature restored funding through Senate Bill 592, which used excess state funds to provide $1.5 million for the services. Kelly called for a more permanent solution in the budget, saying she would press for increased staffing in order to bring the average caseload per worker down to national standard of 12, rather than its present level, which has exceeded 40 in recent years.

Kelly pointed to recent lawsuits levied against the Department of Health and Human Services that have forced the state to pay millions in state settlement, arguing that more investment in the agency would head off future liabilities.

Kelly’s primary opponent, Steve Marchand, pointed to his own vows to improve the agency.

“This is one reason why I am the only candidate for Governor who has not taken The Pledge,” Marchand said. “We need additional revenue at the state level to effectively deal with everything from DCYF to mental health to education funding.”

A spokesman for Sununu, Ben Vihstadt, pushed back at Kelly’s suggestions that Sununu was to blame for the lapse in services, pointing to Kelly’s 10-year Senate tenure that she ended in 2016.

“It was Governor Chris Sununu who ultimately restored voluntary services — not previous Democratic governors — so where was Molly Kelly when this crisis was unfolding?” he said. “Nowhere to be found from her front-row seat.”

And in his own statement Tuesday, Sununu argued his track record speaks for itself. 

“This report verified what we already knew: I inherited a crisis at DCYF from day one, and we took immediate steps to rebuild a broken DCYF system,” he said. “By making this a top priority, we have been able to achieve more substantial action than any administration in 20 years. We removed DCYF leadership, brought in a world class team, filled vacant positions, increased funding, and created new programs all with one purpose: better results for our must vulnerable kids.”

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