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DCYF: More Staff Needed to Handle Increase in Child Abuse and Foster Care Cases

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

The New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth, and Families wants to hire 57 more child protection service workers over the next two years.

The budget request comes after a steady increase in the number of investigations the agency is handling, and the number of children it is placing in foster care.

In a presentation to the legislative Children’s Caucus on Wednesday, DCYF director Joe Ribsam said that in 2014 the agency handled around 9,000 investigations into potential child neglect and abuse; now it's handling over 12,000.

The number of children removed from their homes has also skyrocketed, with the number in "CPS placement" - foster care, a relatives' care, or a residential facility - doubling in the last three years.

Ribsam suspects these numbers reflect a change in the agency and public more than do a spike in child abuse. He says the agency is still in the process of recovering its reputation and expanding services since a state investigation in 2016 and Concord Monitor investigation in 2017 revealed severe understaffing and failure to protect children at risk of abuse.

Credit Courtesy of N.H. DHHS
Some attribute the increase of children in foster care to the opioid crisis, but DCYF says it is also because of increased public attention on child welfare and the agency's expanded reach.

"If you look at child welfare nationally, you see call volume increase after you have a lot of attention on a system," he says. 

"The call volumes go up, followed by the number of assessments and investigations going up, which ultimately leads to a situation where you see many more kids entering foster care than you have historically."

Ribsam estimates the demand for foster homes is twice the amount New Hampshire currently has, but he saysDCYF has ramped up its lisencing of foster care homes in the last year, thanks to staffing increases authorized by Senate Bill 592.

"Senate Bill 592 was incredibly helpful," says Ribsam. "The governor and legislators recognized it as a substantial step forward...but also recognized that there is a lot more work to be done this year."

Ribsam says some of that work is to give child protection service workers time to build relationships with families. Even with the 30 staff added this year, Ribsam thinks the average case load is still too high - about 30 cases per worker.

"Our social workers are skilled at helping families heal and they need to have the time to do that," he says.

Credit Courtesy of N.H. DCYF
Despite an increase in cases, the average caseload per child protection social worker has plummeted in the last two years.

Ribsam wants DCYF to return to a model it had until a decade ago of offering voluntary services to more  families, before they've been deemed at "high risk" of child neglect and abuse.

Ribsam argues that catching potential problems earlier and connecting the family to the right services could mean that in the long run, more families stay intact.

"If we go into a home and we see kids been abused or neglected and we have to remove them, it's still going to be a traumatic experience for that child," he says.

"If we can find a way to work with those families sooner to keep us from getting to that point, the families will be better off, the kids will be better off, and the staff will be better off."

During the presentation, some members of the Children’s Caucus worried that efforts to keep families together might force some kids to remain with family members who have sexually abused them.

Some legislators also encouraged greater collaboration with the school system, which, along with law enforcement, is the main source of the calls to DCYF that prompt child abuse investigations.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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