A new report by the Office of the Child Advocate says the state agency tasked with investigating allegations of child abuse is hampered by poor communication, chronic understaffing, and an outdated, inefficient records keeping system.
The report, which examines systemic factors affecting child safety in New Hampshire, focuses on the deaths of five children and one parent whose families had contact with the Division for Children, Youth and Families since February 2018.
The report is based on interviews with caseworkers and administrators at DCYF, along with additional fact-finding by the Office of Child Advocate, and reinforces well-documented problems at the child protection agency. It also adds greater detail to how those problems affect the people the agency serves.
The review finds that relationships between the DCYF’s eleven district offices and local police departments vary widely. Some district offices have regular meetings with local law enforcement, according to the report, while others have relationships with police that are characterized by mistrust.
One example: When police arrived at a home where a child had died, officers did not notify DCYF of the child’s death nor the fact that there was another child in the family. “DCYF personnel learned of the death through media reports,” the report reads.
The report identifies similar communication breakdowns between DCYF and other constituencies, including municipal departments, hospitals, mental health providers, and substance misuse treatment providers.
DCYF staff “explained that it often feels as though their role in protecting children is minimized and that providers perceive them as not important enough to share information.”
The Office of Child Advocate’s report recommends revamping a state protocol that describes how law enforcement and DCYF should collaborate. According to the report, that protocol has remained unchanged 2008 and no trainings on the protocol have been held since 2009.
DCYF Director Joe Ribsam told NHPR he has no significant objections to the report, adding that most of the issues identified are areas where the agency is already working to improve.
"The recommendations that are in this report are really consistent with where the division sees itself going," said Ribsam. "A lot of those recommendations are validating of what I think a lot of folks have thought we need to do and hopefully we're on the right path."
The report also identifies significant limitations to DCYF’s record-keeping system. According to the report, the current software used by the agency allows DCYF caseworkers to view only one case at a time, allowing for patterns of abuse in families to be missed.
Another issue highlighted in the report: too few caseworkers at DCYF juggling too many cases. While that issue has long been a focus of public and legislative attention, the new report details some of the impacts of that imbalance, including pressure felt by DCYF staff to close cases quickly and incomplete documentation of cases.
Concerns about high case loads are part of what led state lawmakers to create the Office of Child Advocate in 2017. This report marks one of the most wide-ranging reviews of DCYF by the Child Advocate to date.
State lawmakers approved funding last legislative session to hire 57 new staff at DCYF over the next two years. But as the Child Advocate’s report points out, so far only 18 positions have been filled. The report states that “a DCYF administrator described delays for job description approval, a problem with the server where positions are posted, and lateral movement of staff.”
The report argues it will take more than simply filling the allotted positions to improve DCYF’s effectiveness, however. The Child Advocate says that functioning for years with fewer staff than needed “appears to have established a culture of inadequacy” at DCYF, and that significant training and supervision is needed.
In the meantime, a DCYF administrator tells the Child Advocate that “out of necessity DCYF has held on to staff that might not have been the best fit or adequately capable.”
The Child Advocate’s report speculates that an obstacle to filling the open positions at DCYF is the relatively low salary offered by New Hampshire compared to neighboring states. According to the report, New Hampshire is the only state in Northern New England to offer a starting salary for child welfare workers of less than $40,000 a year.
The Child Advocate’s report argues the state should consider taking more aggressive action to fill the positions if the current trend continues.
The very definition of child abuse in New Hampshire law was also highlighted as an area of concern in the report. According to the Child Advocate, DCYF staff “reported a strong reluctance to bring forward caess of psychological maltreatment” because of a perception that such claims would be unlikely to survive in court under current statutes.
The report recommends that lawmakers clarify the state’s definition of psychological abuse to address this issue.
The health and safety of caseworkers at DCYF is also addressed in the Child Advocate’s report. The stress of juggling caseloads that are nearly four-times the recommended average can impact the decisions of child welfare workers, the report says.
Caseworkers also described feeling unsafe at times when assessing reports of child abuse, particularly in situations where one parent has a history of domestic violence.
The full report is posted below.
This post was updated to include a response from DCYF Director Joe Ribsam.