Lawmakers, advocates say change has come slow for DCYF

Monitor staff
Published: 10/21/2016 12:06:33 AM

Brielle Gage was 3 years old when her mother beat her to death in late 2014. 

Less than a year later, 21-month-old Sadence Willott was killed by blunt impact head injuries allegedly caused by her mother, who has since been charged with murder.

When it was revealed both families had been involved with state child protective services, calls for reform erupted. But now, more than a year later, lawmakers and advocates say change has been slow.

Pressure mounted Thursday with a fresh lawsuit that alleges the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families failed to protect two young girls from sexual abuse at the hands of their parents in 2013, despite warnings from family members and the police.

“The horrific abuse that children are facing every day in New Hampshire is highly preventable, but only if we as a state choose to make the safety and welfare of our children a top priority,” said attorney Rus Rilee, who is suing on behalf of the girls’ grandparents and called for the state to take immediate action.

While some progress has been made, larger reforms at DCYF have proven elusive.

Lawmakers passed several bills this year to improve record sharing between DCYF and the police and make it easier for social workers to quickly remove a child from a dangerous home.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, ordered an independent review of DCYF that is set to be released next month.

But a larger effort to implement around-the-clock staffing at DCYF – which is currently open only during business hours on weekdays – has stalled.

And a preliminary report released last week said DCYF doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with reports of child mistreatment. It recommended the agency bring on an additional 35 child protection workers, above the current 85, to manage rising caseloads.

Rilee joined other advocates in calling for emergency funding to hire more child protective staff. But it’s an unlikely prospect. Neither Hassan’s spokesman nor the Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner made mention of such a request in separate statements released in response to the lawsuit Thursday.

HHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said he has already authorized an additional 22 DCYF positions. The agency’s budget request includes an additional $6.3 million over two years to hire more than 50 workers, according to Hassan’s spokesman, William Hinkle. The state budget process begins next year, under the state’s next governor, and concludes in June.

The 24/7 staffing proposal was set to take effect in early September, officials said, but hit a hurdle when no vendors responded to the state’s request for proposals. The department has reissued the request, which closes in early November. It’s not clear what will happen if again no bidders come forward. DCYF Director Lorraine Bartlett said the agency does not have a backup plan, according to draft minutes from the September meeting of the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities.

“That really threw me back,” said commission member Donald LeBruen, a Republican state representative. “At the last meeting the director was not very positive about how the plan was turning out, and she didn’t have a plan B.”

The department has hired half of the 14 workers it needs to extend DCYF hours to 8 p.m., almost four hours beyond the current closing time of 4:30 p.m., Meyers said. “These positions are difficult to fill because of workforce challenges and due to the nature of this work,” he said.

Heavy workloads are the leading cause of high DCYF staff turnover, according to the preliminary report. While national standards recommend a social worker have no more than 12 active assessments at one time, the report said DCYF workers were assigned, on average, 15 new cases a month. The average monthly caseload was 54, the report found.

Commission Chairwoman Rep. Lucy Weber said progress has been slow because of lack of resources. “That’s the bottom line problem,” said Weber, a Democrat.

More reforms are likely on the way. The full independent review, conducted by the Center for the Support of Families, is supposed to examine systemic problems within DCYF, like staffing, training or guidelines.

The Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities is working on a plan to establish an office of the child advocate to provide transparent oversight at DCYF. It would review the agency’s response in child deaths, for example.

“It always makes sense to have outside eyes looking at situations,” said John DeJoie, a commision member and child advocate. “We know the outcomes, and we know some very bad outcomes happened. None of us are aware, nor have we seen any information, about how we got to those outcomes.”

Meyers did not answer questions about whether the department is conducting an internal review of the case cited in the lawsuit or whether the department took any disciplinary action against the employee cited in the suit.

While state law generally keeps records of child abuse and neglect confidential, Rilee was able to file the lawsuit in public after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

“I am hoping this (lawsuit) shines light on the processes of DCYF,” he said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)




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