Sunshine Week: Public records show DCYF rapidly closed 1,500 cases of suspected child abuse

Monitor staff
Published: 3/11/2017 10:16:51 PM

Months after a review of the agency was announced, the Division for Children, Youth and Families suspended normal procedures to shrink a large backlog of open investigations.

Over two days in February 2016, state child protective services closed out more than 1,500 abuse and neglect investigations – almost 15 percent of the reports it gets in a year, records show.

Many of the investigations had gone untouched for months and were closed without an updated check on the children or a comprehensive assessment of the family situation, according to interviews and agency documents.

Director Lorraine Bartlett said workers had determined the children were not in immediate danger. The days were used to complete paperwork that staff hadn’t had time to finish, she said. 

“Essentially, the work with the family was done,” said DCYF administrator Gail Snow. “In no way was safety not considered or safety was compromised.”

Not all feel that way. Ashley Rossiter, a former DCYF worker who was fired last year and is suing the department for employment discrimination, said she faced pushback from superiors when she refused to close cases she thought needed more follow up.

“I am not comfortable saying no danger when I haven’t appropriately assessed the family,” she said. “Just because we’re in crisis mode doesn’t meant these children don’t need to be checked on.”

DCYF has come under scrutiny after two toddlers under agency supervision were killed. Few details have emerged about the state’s role in those cases because most abuse and neglect records are kept confidential under child protection laws.

The fatalities spurred an independent review of the agency, which found DCYF doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with incoming reports of abuse and neglect. The agency rarely closes investigations within the required 60-day timeframe, leading to the backlog, the report found.

Reviewers from the Center for the Support of Families recommended hiring 35 more workers and the state is in the process of filling more DCYF positions. In the meantime, the agency is operating at 50 percent workforce capacity and some staff are being assigned 30 new reports a month, Bartlett said.

Within the last few years, DCYF began designating special days for supervisors to close out overdue assessments. Through a right-to-know request, the Monitor obtained instructions for the February 2016 administrative closing days.

The guidelines told supervisors to forgo usual procedures, such as using a safety tool to evaluate a child’s risk, documenting all interviews in the statewide database and sending letters to parents alerting them the investigation had been closed.

DCYF policy calls for workers to talk to at least two people outside the home – such as neighbors, doctors or teachers – when investigating alleged abuse or neglect. But during these days, cases could be closed without a review of those contacts or a verification that they were made, according to the instructions. Workers were only required to document their victim interviews in the agency-wide system and that’s all supervisors had to read before closing a case, instructions show.  

Any investigations that raised safety concerns were sent back for more work, Snow said. Most of the reports identified for closure were considered low-risk, she said. 

Workers had initially met with children and determined they weren’t in immediate danger from the alleged abuse or neglect, Bartlett said. But the agency hadn’t done a comprehensive assessment of every child’s family situation before closing the cases, she said. That review would include interviewing multiple people to assess the family’s risks or needs and then referring them to services, like parenting classes. 

“The number of reports being assigned to staff exceeded the workforce capacity to do a comprehensive assessment,” she said, adding later. “We determined that safety was not an issue. Could the family have used some support, or coaching or referral to resources? Potentially.” 

The independent report addressed these issues. Reviewers recommended the agency conduct more in-depth investigations. The report also found DCYF doesn’t adequately address the child’s risk for future harm, “often leading to a pattern of repeat reports involving the same unresolved risk factors, for example, parental drug abuse or underlying mental health issues.”

It’s not clear how many of the families whose assessments were closed out may have been reported again to DCYF. 

The closing days were not referenced in the recent independent review. Internal DCYF emails obtained by the Monitor show supervisors were happy with the result. 

“This process has had a positive impact on staff morale, well being and has significantly revitalized staff energy levels,” wrote DCYF field administrator Sherry Ermel in an email last April. “Likewise, it afforded us the opportunity to bring long overdue closure to many families. Ultimately, eliminating the weight our overdue backlog has had on workers increases their ability to better attend to new families coming to our attention which increases our ability to ensure safety.”

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