Watchdog report over points to lingering problems at DCYF

Monitor staff
Published: 1/14/2019 1:32:39 PM

Two years after a critical audit called for an overhaul of the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families, the agency is still beset by staffing and resource problems, a state watchdog has concluded after a nine-month review.

In its first annual report, the Office of the Child Advocate warned that staff shortages and inefficient policies are preventing the state from quickly opening and completing assessments, leaving many of the state’s children vulnerable to harm.

And while lawmakers did provide funding last year for 33 additional staff members to help process those assessments more quickly, the resources are still proving inadequate, according to the report.

The system appears to be fighting an increase in intakes; about 2,000 cases remained backlogged as of September, the report stated, citing DCYF figures. And though two years of increases in case workers has lowered the per-worker caseload from more than 90 to an average of 44, that load is still much higher than the national ideal standard of 12, the report noted.

“The intake and assessment of allegations of abuse or neglect are arguably the most impactful roles of DCYF,” the report stated. “Decisions made at these points can save lives or tear families apart needlessly.”

In a four-page response letter, Jeffrey Meyers, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCYF, expressed appreciation for the report but pushed back on broad portions of it. Parts of it were inaccurate or lacked context, he argued.

“We thank the OCA for its diligence over the past year and its efforts in documenting its leanings in a comprehensive document,” Meyers wrote. “While we do not agree with every aspect of the report, we recognize that it is largely informed by the lived experiences of individuals who have experienced different aspects of the system and that those experiences are important.”

The OCA, created last year to monitor the child services agency as it attempts to rebuild itself, recommended funding for 104 additional positions, as well as 15 nurses to help better handle substance abuse cases.

But the OCA report touched on a broad array of child services in the state as well, citing concerns with the state’s juvenile justice center and foster care system, among others.

Staffing cuts to the Sununu Youth Services Center – imposed last year as part of a draw-down of the center’s population – have forced the facility to abandon some of its services for residential youth, such as libraries, computer access and auto mechanic training shops, the report said. The report argued for better integration of therapeutic services and others at the Manchester facility.

The office pushed for legislators to rewrite a key child welfare statute, RSA 169-C, to prioritize the best interest of a child over the interests of parents, foster parents or state agencies.

And it raised concern around reunification visits between children in the system and their birth parents. Those visits can further traumatize children if not properly supervised, but two supervised visitation centers closed in December 2017, according to the report, which recommended that DHHS create its own visitation center.

But Meyers defended the agency’s performance, characterizing it as a good-faith effort in the face of bigger systemic challenges.

Addressing the Sununu Youth Services Center, the commissioner said some of the report’s claims are “dated,” and that some of the activities listed as disbanded in the report had since been restored.

He said that the supervised visitation centers that closed were there for domestic violence and custodial disputes, not DCYF cases, and that the agency typically oversees visitation.

And he stressed that DCYF is one organization in an ecosystem of organizations – from courts to foster homes – that all relate to welfare.

“There is some confusion throughout the report about ... whether it is a single entity or the larger “system” that needs to change,” Meyers wrote.

But to Moira O’Neill, the OCA director, an overhaul of the entire residential care system is overdue.

“A key finding is that the root of many problems in child protection and juvenile justice is the absence of a comprehensive system of care,” she said in a statement. “This is why residential care is poorly defined, and ultimately why we are using our juvenile justice system as a means of access to basic health care.”

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