New Hampshire Waypoint to start new voluntary services program to head off child neglect and abuse

Monitor staff
Published: 12/5/2020 4:51:33 PM

New Hampshire is moving forward with one of the biggest expansions of child services improvements in a decade after the Executive Council approved sweeping contracts to provide “voluntary services” to families.

Starting soon, two nonprofit organizations will be building up a team of employees tasked with reaching out to families in need of help and helping them draw up plans and get access to services.

The hope is that by spending the resources to reach families earlier, social workers can address family issues before they lead to situations of potential abuse or neglect.

Both efforts have been bolstered by a pair of large contracts approved by the Executive Council on Nov. 18. Waypoint, a social services nonprofit, will receive $19.9 million for a four-year contract to serve the bulk of New Hampshire families.

The Family Resource Center in Gorham will be getting $2.2 million under a contract to serve the North Country.

“We had what I think in my view is probably the most impactful service change that has happened and probably will happen to DCYF,” said Joe Ribsam, director of the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families, in an interview with the Monitor.

The approach is a notable departure from the way DCYF has operated in the past.

For most of the last decade, New Hampshire’s DCYF system has been constrained by a key factor. In order for a family to be helped by the state social services agency, that family needed to hit a threshold: There had to be enough evidence of potential abuse or neglect that DCYF carried out an investigation. Then, that abuse and neglect needed to be proven in court.

Without that investigation, families couldn’t legally receive services, even if they asked for them.

That created a bleak, self-fulfilling prophesy, DCYF leaders and observers say. The only people who could get assisted by the state were the ones whose situations were already drastic.

“The only way to get help was if the system were to fail,” said Borja Alvarez de Toledo, the CEO of Waypoint, in an interview.

New Hampshire did once provide DCYF help to families who asked for it, a category of assistance known as “voluntary services.” But the funding for those services was eliminated in 2011 under sweeping budget cuts. In the years that followed, the agency had to wait until cases worsened to alarming levels to intervene.

The result: Caseworkers would go out into the field and carry out actuarial analysis on homes to decide how bad a situation was.

While about a third of those investigations resulted in findings of high risk or very high risk, only about 10% of all cases resulted in a finding of abuse or neglect, Ribsam said.

That meant that about 25% of all the family situations DCYF investigated were not eligible for voluntary services, despite being listed as high risk.

“So you have about a quarter of your total cases that are high risk that you had no choice but to close and walk away from,” Ribsam said.

In total, that amounted to 2,000 families a year that should have been helped but legally couldn’t be.

The lack of voluntary services, combined with staffing cuts, led to large backlogs of the most severe caseloads, which in turn led to high-profile child fatalities.

After a drumbeat of negative attention, the Legislature decided to continue funding voluntary services in the 2019 budget.

Still, even with DCYF suddenly free to help families before cases worsen, resource constraints mean they only can get to about 100 families out of the roughly 2,000 eligible a year, according to Ribsam.

That’s where the contracts with Waypoint and the Family Resource Center come in, Ribsam says.

By building up opportunities for families to work through high-stress environments, state officials and the two contracted organizations can hopefully provide frameworks for overloaded parents to help manage that stress and find better solutions. The effect: an ability to deal with family crises “upstream,” before they turn into unmanageable situations or even tragedies.

And with the new contracts, the organizations could together serve around 1,000 of the 2,000 families a year, Ribsam says. That’s taking into account a number of families who will likely decline assistance from the state or Waypoint, and the hope that that 2,000-family baseline number will drop with the new services.

Alvarez de Toledo said the new services would allow any concerns raised by family members or mandated reporters to be acted upon by Waypoint and the Family Resource Center.

For instance, if a child comes to school malnourished or with poor hygiene, voluntary services would allow Waypoint to reach out to the families before DCYF needed to launch an official investigation, Alvarez de Toledo said. That could be prompted by a teacher making a report or a call to the DCYF hotline.

Waypoint could then meet the family and explain to them that while DCYF is not opening a formal case, there are services available if the family is struggling.

The approach is designed to be a cooperative one, Alvarez de Toledo said. If the family accepts help, the service worker sits down with them, discusses the reported concerns, and looks for causes. Then the family and the worker work together to find agreed-upon solutions.

That could mean further counseling opportunities. It could mean referrals to substance use treatment facilities or mental health treatment.

In the process, Alvarez de Toledo and Ribsam say, the extra attention given by social workers may work to turn around some families’ perception of DCYF, making it less punitive and more cooperative.

“It’s co-creating the areas of concern together, so that there’s buy-in from the families around ‘Oh yes, this is an issue,’ ” Alvarez de Toledo says. “You look at the whole pattern and start deconstructing what can happen. It’s looking at the whole sequence. And when the family tries things, you celebrate.”

Above all, the interactions are meant to keep families out of the system, keep children united with parents, reduce the burden on the child services system, courts and foster care, Alvarez de Toledo says.

“This is really transformative,” he said. “Because it’s really providing prevention.”

The contract represents a big expansion for Waypoint, a Manchester-based organization. The plan is to hire around 55 people; job applications were sent out Nov. 18, just after the contract was officially approved, Alvarez de Toledo said.

One of those positions involves a staff member embedded in DCYF to help coordinate incoming reports and complaints with the agency to send voluntary services where appropriate.

Alvarez de Toledo estimated that the organization would take about six months to build up its staff.

“Folks are working feverishly to get this set up,” said Ribsam, who said the goal was to reach full capacity in a year.

For both Waypoint and DCYF, the contracts represent something long needed at the child services agency: relief. The boosted ability to guide families that otherwise fall through the cracks could be a psychological boost for existing DCYF workers, Alvarez de Toledo argued.

“You have these families that don’t quite make it to DCYF but have a lot of concerns,” he said. “And just saying ‘we can’t help you’ was really discouraging.”

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


Jobs



Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Concord Monitor, recently named the best paper of its size in New England.


Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301
603-224-5301

 

© 2020 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy