Report: Child safety requires improving problems within, and outside of, DCYF 

Monitor staff
Published: 10/30/2019 11:21:00 PM

While it’s true that more staff is needed in the state’s system overseeing the safety of children, a news analysis said dealing with serious family problems in New Hampshire requires a rethinking of systems ranging from health care to law enforcement, including the habits of other people.

“It’s really disheartening to hear people on television say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s always been a problem at that house,’ but they haven’t ever called it in,” Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said in an interview Wednesday, echoing concerns raised in the office’s first major report on critical cases.

“(Survey respondents) noted that other officials, neighbors and community members were often aware of conditions or circumstances in children’s homes but rather than report concerns to (Division of Children, Youth and Families), only criticized DCYF inaction after a tragic event,” the report said.

That reluctance may come in part, the report said, because of strained relationships between DCYF and other agencies, fueled by high-profile cases where children were not removed from unsafe homes, as well as cases where the agency was seen to be interfering with parental rights by removing children too quickly.

Caseworkers told the office “it often feels as though their role in protecting children is minimized and that (medical, mental health and substance abuse recovery) providers perceive them as not important enough to share information.”

The Office of the Child Advocate was created by the state Legislature in 2017 in light of reports of problems with DCYF. The caseload for many social service agencies has risen sharply in recent years, fueled in large part by the opioid crisis.

Wednesday’s report is the office’s first reviewing what is known as critical incidents. It looked at 26 reported deaths of children since February 2018, including deaths by natural causes. Those deaths included 15 children whose families had prior contact with DCYF. The report focused on the deaths of five children and one parent during that period. It is based on interviews with caseworkers and administrators at DCYF, along with separate fact-finding.

The cases “were characterized by activities at homes evident of family dysfunction or high-risk behaviors including mental health crises, domestic violence, problem school attendance, unsafe housing conditions, patterns of possible illegal activities and frequent presence of law enforcement.”

That frequent interaction with authorities is an issue it itself, the report said, because it makes officials take a family’s concerns less seriously.

“Weary child protection professionals may at times use an insensitive term to describe families with chronic need for child protective, law enforcement and health care services: ‘frequent fliers.’ This kind of chronicity that appears to wear on DCYF staff characterized all but one of the five cases reported on,” the report said. “A similar ‘frequent flier’ effect occurs in hospital emergency departments. Perceived overuse of care and frustration with lack of progress can have negative effects on how professionals view and value clients with chronic needs.”

■Among the report’s recommendations are:

■Complete the hiring of 57 caseworkers and 20 supervisors that was approved by the Legislature. “Hiring has been slow,” said the report, which attributed this in part to low pay. New Hampshire has the lowest starting salary for social workers of any neighboring state. The report said attempts to get more workers seems unlikely: An administrator explained they did not believe it politically expedient to ask for extra staff, saying, ‘The Legislature would laugh at that’.”

■Complete the upgrade and redesign of computer systems that allow quicker sharing of information about cases. This is already being done but is “critical ... so that caseworkers have information so they can best protect kids,” O’Neill said.

■ Spread a training called “Know and Tell” developed by the Granite State Children’s Alliance, which helps people assess the wellbeing of children and decide whether concerns should be reported, including mandating for all state employees and state contractors.

O’Neil said the report is also significant for using a process called “safety science.”

“That’s what was key to this process, using safety science to move away from looking for someone to blame, and looking where can we strengthen this system so we can be more responsive,” she said.

“This is the first report of its kind in the nation. There are child welfare systems that are incorporating safety science, but from an independent oversight agency, based on experience at the field level, using safety science to understand how system functions and how it can improve, this is the first,” she said.

The Office of the Child Advocate is nearing completion of another report reviewing how to deal with children who are born addicted or having been exposed to drugs or alcohol.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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