Capital Beat: Transparency called for at state DCYF

  • Republican Sen. Jerry Little, of Weare, speaks on the Senate Floor in support of a bill that reauthorizes medicaid expansion for two more years. The proposal passed the chamber in a 16-8 vote on Thursday, March 31, 2016. ALLIE MORRIS

Monitor staff
Published: 4/30/2016 11:39:42 PM

The state’s child protection division is shrouded in confidentiality, and for good reason. The division deals with minors who are abused and neglected by their caregivers, sometimes horrifically.

But that same confidentially makes it next to impossible to figure out whether the division is doing a good job keeping kids safe – especially in the wake of recent child deaths.

“There absolutely needs to be greater transparency,” said John DeJoie, who represents New Hampshire Kids Count on the state Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities. “There needs to be oversight, where the public can feel if there were problems, they are being addressed.”

Preventing child fatalities has become a major focus at the State House this year, following recent deaths of toddlers.

Three-year-old Brielle Gage and 21-month-old Sadence Willott died in November 2014 and September 2015 respectively, and both their mothers have been charged with murder. The state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families had been involved with both families, spurring calls for agency reform.

The Legislature is now poised to pass at least four bills this year aimed at improving child safety. And Gov. Maggie Hassan has called for an independent review of DCYF, which is expected to come by the end of the year, nearly two years after Gage’s death.

In the meantime, DCYF isn’t saying what steps it has taken in the wake of the child fatalities.

A spokesman wouldn’t confirm whether the division has or will review its involvement in the cases. Nor would the division divulge whether any of its employees have been disciplined.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCYF, says it can’t comment on the Gage and Willott cases because they are both open criminal investigations. The department also doesn’t comment on personnel matters, said spokesman Jake Leon.

“Anytime a child is harmed, it is cause for examining what happened and whether changes to DCYF policies or procedures are needed to prevent such an event and to ensure the safety of all children from abuse or neglect,” Leon said in a statement. “Generally, when there is a critical event involving a DHHS bureau or division, DHHS conducts an internal quality assurance review.”

Those reviews are kept confidential. So even if the department has conducted one, the public would not know the findings or whether the division has acted on them.

The confidentiality can make it tough to build public trust in the agency, advocates say.

But it may change. Attorneys representing Gage and Willott’s family members are arguing a case before the Supreme Court over whether lawsuits that involve child abuse or neglect can be made public.

Currently, those cases are kept confidential under the state’s Child Protection Act. Attorneys Rus Rilee and Charles Capace say the rule is interpreted too broadly, so the public rarely learns about problems with the state’s child protective services.

“The public has a right to know,” Rilee said.

At the State House, advocates and lawmakers are working on a proposal to create a new office of the child advocate, which would independently oversee and review cases DCYF handles.

Massachusetts has such an office, and a former child advocate testified before the commission to review child fatalities last week.

The Bay State has been grappling with its own controversies surrounding child protective services, but it has been doing so much more publicly.

In the last year, a 2-year-old in foster care died and a 7-year-old boy, under surveillance by child protection services, was beaten and starved before he fell into a coma, according to reports.

The state Department of Children and Families conducted an internal review of both cases and it found many failures for the department’s inability to protect the children, according to the Boston Globe.

Gov. Charlie Baker released the those reviews publicly last fall. The Republican has since announced major department reforms, and has held periodic press conferences to update the public on progress.

No show

The Senate killed a bill last week after none of its sponsors showed up to the public hearing. The bill, that deals with dismissal procedures for the guardian ad litem board, was filed last year, worked on all summer and passed by the House in January.

“We had no testimony whatsoever on this particular piece of legislation,” Republican Sen. Sharon Carson said on the floor Thursday. “Just because the House worked on this bill, doesn’t automatically mean the Senate is going to rubber stamp something.”

Those are strong words. The two chambers are going to have to work together over the coming weeks to find consensus on bills that they don’t see eye to eye on. If they can’t find a compromise, the legislation dies.

Perfect score

GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeanie Forrester wants voters to know she’s conservative. Last week, her campaign put out a release touting the Republican state senator’s perfect, 100 percent voting record score from a national advocacy group known as the American Conservative Union.

It may be an honor, but it would have been more shocking if Forrester hadn’t won. Eleven of the state’s 14 Republican senators picked up the award. The survey also included the “lowest Republican,” who received a 67 percent score. It’s Hampton Sen. Nancy Stiles, who is often working across the aisle.

What shape are we in

Tune in Monday for a presentation on the state’s fiscal and economy health. A variety of economists and labor experts will be testifying before lawmakers all morning, and it will be livestreamed on the Legislature’s website.

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




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