Sununu nominates former DCYF leader to head up child protection agency

Monitor staff
Published: 5/16/2017 6:27:34 PM

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s nominee to oversee state child protection has a history with the agency tasked to investigate abuse and neglect.

Christine Tappan of Northwood worked at the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families for four years – until 2012 – in charge of training and quality improvement at the agency. Prior to that, she worked there in the 1990s as a child welfare specialist. Tappan did not return a call for comment.

“She comes with a background both within New Hampshire DCYF, but also national experience dealing with these issues,” Sununu told lawmakers Tuesday. “She has brought in a lot of perspective from other states in terms of what works and what doesn’t.”

DCYF has been without permanent leadership since mid-March, when Sununu put former director Lorraine Bartlett on leave after learning about the agency’s rapid closure of more than 1,500 open investigations.

While the largest union of state employees backs the nomination, several child advocates said they haven’t yet spoken or met with Tappan, who is scheduled to come up for an Executive Council vote Wednesday.

If confirmed, Tappan would be the agency’s “senior division director,” but she would likely transition into an associate commissioner role overseeing child protection, juvenile justice and the youth detention center. A national search for a DCYF director remains underway, according to Jeffrey Meyers, head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Interim DCYF Director Maureen Ryan announced Tuesday she is leaving the department by early June.

The State Employees’ Association said they decided to back Tappan’s nomination after meeting with her for more than an hour recently.

“We think she brings a lot of experience and ideas to a troubled agency, one that has gone through a lot of problems of (worker) attraction and retention,” said SEIU Political Organizer Jay Ward. “She has a good understanding of it because she has been in the department twice before.”

Representatives from CASA of New Hampshire and Child and Family Services said they haven’t met with Tappan since she was nominated two weeks ago.

“(Tappan) knows the state well; she is very smart and probably quite capable,” said Marcia Sink, president of CASA of New Hampshire, which advocates for abused and neglected children during the court process. “Hopefully she has a strong philosophy about protecting children.”

Tappan was most recently at DCYF between 2008 and 2012, when she served as Administrator of the Bureau of Organizational Learning and Quality Improvement, according to her resume provided by Sununu’s office. Then, she “led design and implementation” of the solutions-based casework model still used by the agency. And she had a hand in redesigning the staff training partnership with the University of New Hampshire, her resume says.

An independent review released last year found that DCYF training lacks depth and leans too heavily on lectures, instead of letting staff practice skills and get supervisor feedback.

Meyers said Tappan was at the agency when it was “working very, very well” and before it started facing funding cuts. Since leaving DCYF in 2012, Tappan has worked for Washington, D.C.-based organizations, including the American Public Human Services Association and as a director for a project with the federal Children’s Bureau.

“Because of her national experience, her policy experience and overseeing child welfare programs in consulting roles, we felt she was really well-suited to the position of associate commissioner,” Meyers said.

A bill under consideration in the Legislature, House Bill 400, reclassifies the DCYF senior division director as an associate commissioner. If the bill is signed into law, Tappan would take over that upper management role, Meyers said.

Lawmakers this session are focused on reforming DCYF after an independent review found that the agency has too few staff members to respond to a growing number of child maltreatment reports and rarely substantiates reports of abuse. The agency came under statewide scrutiny after 3-year-old Brielle Gage and 21-month-old Sadee Willott were killed by their mothers in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Agency records show DCYF had investigated multiple reports of abuse and neglect against the girls before their deaths.

At a commission meeting about DCYF on Tuesday, Sununu said the agency is making progress on a backlog of 2,800 open abuse investigations. DCYF workers have closed 178 under a new overtime pay initiative and closed 267 more during regular business hours, he said.

Sununu said he backs a bill to create an office of the child advocate, which would have subpoena power and would provide independent oversight at the DCYF. While Sununu criticized past mismanagement of the agency, he praised workers who investigate abuse and neglect in the field.

“They are out there working their tails off, frankly, with a lot of passion and a lot of care, only trying to get the best results for the kids,” Sununu said. “They, for the most part, really do a tremendous job.”

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




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