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Outside review of rapidly closed DCYF cases approved, despite concerns



Monitor staff
Wednesday, June 07, 2017

A Florida-based nonprofit will begin reviewing a fraction of the 1,500 child abuse and neglect investigations the state rapidly closed out over two days last year to help shrink a massive backlog.

The Executive Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the $82,000 contract with Eckerd Kids, despite concerns with the organization’s track record in Florida and the low number of cases set to be audited.

“I think you have got to look at everything from top to bottom,” said Manchester Councilor Chris Pappas, a Democrat. “I would hate to see this be the end of it.”

The state’s top health official said he was unaware, until reading a Monitor story this week, that five children had died under Eckerd’s care in Florida and dozens more were forced to sleep in offices and other unlicensed locations when the organization was unable to place them in foster homes.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said he has since talked with Eckerd officials, who told him that four of the deaths were accidental and the fifth remains under investigation.

“They have been very forthcoming,” Meyers told councilors, adding later. “We think they are qualified to do this. We think it was a fair price.”

Councilors questioned the scope of the review and the vetting process for Eckerd before ultimately approving the sole-source contract.

“I don’t like depending on the Monitor to learn about contractors,” Councilor Andru Volinsky said.

Under the new agreement, Eckerd will develop a tool to review 100 cases and determine whether the Division for Children, Youth and Families closed them appropriately.

DCYF will have a say in the sample, and Meyers said 11 reports deemed especially high-risk will be included. Depending on early findings, the review would be expanded to include more of the 1,500 investigations closed over two days last year, Meyers said. The contract lasts through December, and most of the cases will be reviewed remotely. No one from Eckerd Kids spoke at the meeting.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said afterward that the nonprofit comes “very highly regarded,” especially for its safety tools and quality assurance expertise.

“We have been talking about it for some time, but we just need to move to make sure we are providing these assurances,” he said. “I have no doubt it will be very beneficial as we go through the process of reviewing these cases.”

Sununu cut ties with the DCYF director in March after the Monitor reported the agency suspended some normal procedures to “administratively close” hundreds of open investigations over two days in February 2016.

Meyers said the department believes that in many cases workers had already determined the children were not at risk, but hadn’t had time to complete the burdensome paperwork needed to close an investigation.

Others disagree.

Ashley Rossiter, a former DCYF worker who was fired and is now suing for employment discrimination, has said she faced pushback for not closing investigations she thought needed more work and follow-up.

The agency still has nearly 3,000 overdue abuse and neglect investigations that have stretched beyond the 60-day deadline to take action, Meyers said Wednesday. DCYF recently began awarding workers paid overtime to close cases, but Meyers said he is evaluating whether to bring in outside help.

The Council on Wednesday also approved an agreement to have Eckerd Kids train DCYF workers in a software program meant to flag high-risk cases that deserve more follow-up. Casey Family Programs will underwrite costs for the first two years, after which the agency will need to pay the $100,000 annual price tag.

The software, known as Rapid Safety Feedback, is already in use in several nearby states, including Connecticut and Maine.

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