After announcing her retirement, head of DCYF talks about challenges facing the agency

Monitor staff
Monday, January 30, 2017

Lorraine Bartlett has seen dramatic changes in the field of child social work during the past 40 years.

“It was practically unheard of when I was a worker in the field that you would get called in for a report of a 5-year-old sitting next to their dead parent because their parent overdosed,” said Bartlett, the retiring director of the Division for Child, Youth and Families

Workers are seeing increasingly complex cases involving trauma, more so than she saw in the field even a decade ago, said Bartlett, who spent 28 years of her career in New Hampshire.

Bartlett announced her retirement from the agency last week, which will take effect at the end of March. The search for a new director comes at a time when DCYF is facing intense scrutiny following the deaths of two children under the agency’s supervision, 3-year-old Brielle Gage of Nashua and 21-month-old Sadie Willott of Manchester.

Families of the two girls are being represented by attorney Russ Rilee, who has filed a civil lawsuit against the agency in an effort to collect damages and force further transparency. Arguments on that case will be heard in April.

An independent report commissioned by former governor Maggie Hassan recommended the state hire an additional 35 protection workers to help manage increasing reports of abuse and neglect.

The report found DCYF’s 85 staffers can’t keep up with the flow of reports.

In an interview Friday, Bartlett acknowledged her agency has faced significant challenges, worsened by the state’s opioid crisis.

In 2015, DCYF received 504 reports of babies born with opioid withdrawal symptoms, one side effect of a mother’s drug use. That number increased from 367 such reports in 2014.

Bartlett said about 44 percent of the reports called into her agency’s central intake involved substance abuse including alcohol and drugs. She added that parental substance abuse is involved in about 50 percent of the cases out of the total 942 New Hampshire children in placement.

“You’re seeing children that are being exposed early on to parents that are using illicit drugs constantly,” she said. “That has a detrimental impact on your emotional, psychological and physical well-being.”

Case workers might see a child who has been left in its crib or carseat all day because parents are using drugs or have overdosed.

“Am I getting any stimuli to help my brain develop?” Bartlett posed as an example. “Help me learn how to speak, to read, to walk. And then I’m a 13-year-old who should be doing things at school and taking care of my younger siblings and making sure they get up to go to school because my parents aren’t available for me to do that.”

That increase has stretched workers at her agency thin, Bartlett said.

“I think one of the things that we became pretty good at was managing with the resources that we had,” she said. “But what we’ve seen in the last three years – with the combination of turnover of staff, increased number of protective reports, increased number of cases – suddenly created this perfect storm of, ‘how are we going to manage?’ ” she said.

Bartlett said she sees the independent report as an opportunity to improve.

“Know what your field needs, respond to that, but be prepared to collaborate and work with the stakeholders and the Legislature on how to get there,” she said.

Specifically, Bartlett said DCYF staffers are looking at doing more assessments to get additional information about parents whom they suspect of having substance use disorder but who won’t admit that to case workers.

“How do we look at creating appropriate safety plans with parents (when) we can’t prove they have a substance use disorder, there are those suspicions, but the children are very, very young and they can’t tell us,” she said.

New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers praised Bartlett’s years of public service.

“As director of DCYF for the past three years, Lorraine has worked tirelessly to ensure a high-quality child protection system for the state,” Meyers said. “She served DCYF with distinction, and I wish to recognize and thank her for her dedication and ceaseless efforts on behalf of the Division and the people of New Hampshire.”

Meyers said he has known of Bartlett’s impending retirement for a number of months and department officials will start searching for a permanent director for the agency immediately.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter