DCYF needs new direction

State | A change in leadership is what it will take to right ship and set a different course.

Every year, various studies, audits and reports on state services are released in New Hampshire, and most see a day or two of press coverage before they are filed on a shelf in the state library. But the Center for the Support of Families report on DCYF – the Division of Children, Youth and Families – released in December, is one that cannot be so easily dismissed. Its recommendations need to be the basis for systemic changes to an agency that has failed our most vulnerable citizens.

I want to emphasize that finding fault with the agency is not about pointing fingers or blaming DCYF social workers, who are overworked and often traumatized by what they see daily in the field. But I do believe that as policymakers we need to ask how a culture developed at DCYF where the safety of kids has not been the primary focus. The change in direction and attitude the agency requires will take an outside fix, not a promotion or lateral move within the Department of Health and Human Services.

The impetus for the Center for the Support of Families review of DCYF was the deaths of Brielle Gage, a Nashua toddler, and Sadie Willott, a 21-month-old from Manchester. It is tragic that it took the deaths of two little girls to come to this conclusion: New Hampshire is not doing even a passable job in protecting children at risk. Grandparents of abused and neglected children, advocates for children, and even former staff of DCYF have maintained for years that the agency’s priorities are often skewed.

The study’s findings show that 86 percent of abuse and neglect cases reported to the State falling into the category of “unfounded” and thus, not pursued. While in Vermont and Maine, the percentage of unfounded cases of child abuse is on the other end of the scale. In those states, reports of child abuse and neglect are taken more seriously, examined more thoroughly, and are acted on more promptly. We need to find out why the reverse has happened here, and how laws, policies and – perhaps most importantly – attitudes, need to be corrected so that abuse claims are thoroughly investigated.

DCYF may have a workforce shortage, difficult working conditions, a backlog of cases, and a lack of training for staff, but other states deal with those realities as well. Further, some of our statutes may need major overhaul because, the center’s reviewers found, some DCYF workers believe that the law prevents them from taking action when abuse is reported.

But there are other factors at work here that are also very concerning and which prevent the agency from being effective. For example, on any given day, one third of the DCYF staff are either out sick, in a training session, or otherwise engaged, so they are not working on child abuse cases. The fact that this is considered routine for the agency charged with protecting the safety of our children is just plain unacceptable. If a third of the State’s highway workers or a third of our DMV staff were out every day, people would complain and the situation would get fixed. But the people most affected by DCYF’s shortcomings can’t complain.

In response to the DCYF review, I have worked with the House leadership to establish a special joint committee to study and act on the recommendations. But statutory fixes and funding increases should not be the only outcome of the Center for Support of Families findings. Gov. Chris Sununu, in his first budget address last week, said of the report and the agency: “We have a crisis at our Division of Children Youth and Families, there’s no denying that … I do not see this is not a choice but a moral obligation and the start of transformational changes needed within the department, and within our state. We need new leadership but also a new approach to the way we protect our most vulnerable children.”

New leadership, a new set of eyes, and an objective view of DCYF’s strengths and weaknesses is what it will take to right the ship and set a new course. This should be the year when New Hampshire makes a clear and committed effort to remove all our children from risk, abuse and neglect.

State Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, is president of the NH Senate.