An outside review of New Hampshire’s child protective services agency, the Division of Children Youth and Families, identified a number of red flags in how abuse and neglect reports are handled.
Outside reviewers found that many cases reported to the agency were not brought forward for further action, even when the agency’s own assessments found that kids were at high risk of harm.
"We’re not talking about the risk of harm that's on the mild side of the spectrum, " said Jerry Milner, who presented the report on behalf of the Center for the Support of Families, the Maryland-based agency behind the review.
"We’re talking about risk of harm where there are very often significant underlying issues, underlying family dynamics, that in our opinion often place children at a risk of harm where some intervention is actually needed in order to ensure that their situation will not escalate to an immediate or imminent danger kind of situation."
The review also found an agency stretched thin – with not enough staff to handle all the reports it’s receiving, and not enough training to ensure staffers can investigate and respond to incoming cases. (This echoed the findings of an interim report released several months ago as part of the same DCYF review.)
Reviewers also pointed to gaps in state laws defining child abuse and neglect, noting that the language left too much room for interpretation, making it difficult to bring cases forward.
To remedy these and other issues, the reviewers called upon the state to hire more staff and supervisors who can make sure cases are being thoroughly investigated.
They also say more treatment services are needed, especially around substance abuse and mental health, to ensure that when problems are identified families have somewhere to go for help.
Another recommendation in the report encouraged the state to move forward with plans to position itself to respond to calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers says a contract with an outside agency to provide round-the-clock coverage is expected to go before the executive council for approval this week — as long as that gets the green light, Meyers says he expects to start phasing in that extended coverage sometime in January.
"We're going to look at phasing it in some high-need areas of the state," Meyers says. "I'll be reaching out to law enforcement in those areas and working with them to ensure a smooth transition, and I hope by early February, mid-February, we'll be able to phase it in even more so."
The review was prompted by the deaths of two separate toddlers — three-year-old Brielle Gage of Nashua, and one-year-old Sadie Willott of Manchester – that raised questions about DCYF’s oversight when red flags were brought to the agency’s attention. Gov. Maggie Hassan announced that the state would pursue a formal DCYF review in October 2015, and a contract with the outside review agency was approved in March.
The review did not directly address either incident, and state officials involved declined to comment on the connection between those deaths and the findings of the report, citing ongoing criminal investigations. Meyers did confirm that the reviewers spoke to law enforcement officials all across the state, including the areas where those incidents took place.
Milner, one of the outside reviewers, said he couldn’t guarantee tragedies like that wouldn’t happen again.
"I’d be a fool to say to you or any other child welfare agency in the country that you’re not going to encounter some of those very difficult situations where children suffer as a result of actions that were taken or not taken," Milner said at the presentation of the report on Monday.
The hope, Milner said, is that the reforms proposed in the report will help DCYF be more proactive, less reactive, in preventing dangerous situations in the future.