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Plaintiff says $275K settlement sends a message to DCYF

  • Rus Rilee speaks at the press conference announcing a lawsuit filed against the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) and families’ call for immediate reform of the agency. GEOFF FORESTER



Monitor staff
Tuesday, September 04, 2018

To the plaintiff, the settlement is no small sum: $275,000 paid by New Hampshire taxpayers after Ashley Rossiter brought a wrongful termination lawsuit against the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families. But Rossiter says the message is more important than the money.

In October 2016, Rossiter was fired from her position with the child services agency after a string of poor performance reviews that she says were retaliatory. An outspoken critic of agency leadership, Rossiter says she often locked horns with her superiors over constraints imposed on caseworkers.

The suit she filed in January 2017 has yielded Rossiter a comfortable exit package. More significantly, she says, it sent a message to an agency she says still needs a culture change.

“This was not just about money for me,” she said. “This was about making changes in New Hampshire. Because I never want there to be another death that could have been prevented.”

DCYF has seen a harried few years, and few have experienced its hardships as closely as Rossiter. Years before a comprehensive audit exposed a litany of shortcomings in 2016, Rossiter was just starting out at the agency.

It was a troubling environment from the start, she said in an interview. Under staffed and overworked, the employees faced a daily onslaught of difficult choices that held back their work, Rossiter said. Workers were constrained to strict eight-hour workdays – overtime was almost never given – yet supervisors still demanded a high output of case resolutions, according to Rossiter.

That meant a constant search for balance between checking in on children and families and working to finish paperwork to close out cases. Management heavily favored the latter, Rossiter said. Employees were encouraged to take the quickest route possible, she added.

Any time a child was placed in a foster home, for instance, DCYF caseworkers were pushed to move on to other cases, placing the child’s future in the hands of foster parents moving forward, she said. That’s “a great way to burn out foster parents,” she said.

The message for caseworkers quickly became clear: “You need to stay in and just close, close, close,” Rossiter said. “We don’t care how you do it, just get it done.”

Rossiter found the conditions worrisome. “There were these issues where kids were not being removed appropriately,” she said. “There were some instances where kids were just left in dangerous situations.”

She tried to bring them to the attention of management in 2013, gradually working her way up the chain of command with her concerns, she said. But none were addressed, and her complaints began to take a toll on her career, she claims.

Despite hurting her arm in an ATV accident, she was not given work extensions or provided technology to assist with typing – despite it being available to others, she says. She was written up consistently for staying over her hours, and eventually fired over it, she says. The claims would form the backbone of her discrimination lawsuit.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCYF, declined to comment on the charges, referring questions on the lawsuit to the attorney general’s office.

In an interview, Assistant Attorney General Ann Edwards stressed that the settlement did not include an admission of wrongdoing by the state. The state chose to settle in order to head off a loss of productivity that a trial would inflict on the agency – not because it was at fault, Edwards said.

“Just because somebody is making allegations does not mean they can prove those allegations,” Edwards said, explaining the decision to avoid a trial. “It can be more harmful to the system as a whole to have the sort of the back and forth that happens (in court).”

Still, Rossiter stands by her claims of wrongful termination. And she says her experience shines a light on a continuing problem for the agency. While Gov. Chris Sununu and Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers have taken action and replaced top leadership officials at the agency – including, notably, its director Lorraine Bartlett in 2017 – those in “middle management” still maintain power.

Those employees, she says, are the ones with the longest tenure, and the ones most responsible for the conditions. Those in the field meeting the families firsthand, meanwhile, have the highest turnover year to year.

That contrast is telling, Rossiter argues.

“To make it in ‘DCYF-land,’ to move up the ranks, you have to be one of these people who’s going to go along to get along, and kind of what I call ‘play the game,’ ” she said. “If you care about kids and want to just go out and do field work, you’re only going to be there one or two years before you realize that ethically you cannot stay there as a social worker.”

In recent years, the Legislature and governor have rushed to make improvements to the agency as it struggles to find its footing – adding dozens of caseworker and management positions in an attempt to clear away a persistent backlog. The agency is now helmed by Joe Ribsam, a former top official credited with turning around New Jersey’s child services agency.

Meanwhile, a string of recent taxpayer-funded settlements and a recently released federal report critical of the agency have led to calls by Democratic candidates for state office for an increase in funding and positions in the next budget.

Rossiter, who had a meeting with Ribsam as part of her settlement agreement, said his “heart is in the right place.” But she said the agency has a long way to go. And money is only a part of the problem, she said.

“I think that that’s what they like to say, that this would all be fixed with resources and money,” she said. “... Of course any time you have more workers doing a job and a job that is completely overwhelmed, (additional resources are) going to take a huge burden off. But I think it’s foolish to say that more money and more workers is going to fix the systemic problem at DCYF.”