The Office of The Child Advocate, established in 2018 as an independent agency to oversee the Division of Children, Youth and Families, issued its first annual report recently. Among its recommendations: The state should fund more DCYF staff to help relieve overloaded case workers – a problem that has long beset the agency. But OCA Director Moira O'Neill says the job of protecting children includes the broader community -- though not all Granite Staters may realize they're required by law to report suspicions of child neglect and abuse.
Below are excerpts (edited slightly for clarity) from The Exchange’s recent interview with Moira O'Neill.
You say in your report: “We wait around for children to be battered and beaten before we help.” What do you mean by that?
It starts with all of us in New Hampshire. It’s fairly unique here in that every single one of us is a mandated reporter. What that means is that we’ve agreed as a community here in N.H. that we’re all responsible for children. And, by law, if we suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, we need to report that to DCYF, the lead agency in responding to abuse and neglect. So they’re the folks that we need to bring this information to. Now, a lot of people may not know they’re a mandated reporter.
People also may not feel comfortable getting involved in making reports about children. There’s a wonderful initiative called "Know and Tell" run by the Granite State Children’s Alliance. They’re going around the state teaching everyone what their responsibilities are, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of abuse or neglect, and how to tell about it.
Generally in other states the law requires only certain types of people to be mandated reporters -- people who would be in the know: health care professionals, teachers, coaches. New Hampshire has probably taken the lead early on in saying we all need to be responsible for children and we all need to recognize when children are in trouble.
Why are some people anxious or hesitant to call DCYF?
DCYF has had, in most states, a pretty bad reputation for taking people’s children. So DCYF is responsible for responding to abuse and neglect and getting children out of harm’s way. So that does translate into sometimes removing children from a family. Although that’s not the focus of the agency, that’s what we hear about. Parental rights are so important. Families are sacrosanct -- so when the state intervenes and takes a child that’s very uncomfortable for folks. So no one wants to be that person who makes someone lose their child. A lot of people don’t want to get involved. And some people are just worried they may be making a mistake.
We’re not all expected to be experts on this. If we just feel like it’s not right, we call DCYF because they have experts on the phone; they don’t mind if you call with something that doesn’t rise to the level. In fact, they screen out a lot of calls because it’s not abuse and neglect -- but they do appreciate people calling and sharing their concerns.
So it’s important that we encourage people to have the confidence to say, I think there may be something going on here. And hopefully what DCYF will do -- with its latest transformation -- is help more of the community understand it’s a helping agency and not a policing agency.
It’s also important that parents be open to DCYF as a helping agency and follow all of their advice because they do set up a system in which parents can improve their parenting, and reunification is always the focus.
Among the problems you point out in your report though is that calls to DCYF for help are not always being returned.
That’s the number one complaint we get. In any government agency, customer service is so important, but in DCYF circumstances, responding to people, returning calls, returning emails, is actually what builds trust between the agency and the family. And that’s really important when you’re trying to engage families, engage children and understand their needs so you can meet them and determine whether abuse or neglect has happened.
There may be some case workers who are just not good at being responsive. There may be some case workers who are new and not experienced, maybe overwhelmed and not getting to their phones but in general I believe this is a problem of caseloads. There’s also a high turnover rate; it’s dropped a little and we’re encouraged by that.
How much do these case workers earn? What does the job entail?
DCYF workers have lots of paperwork to do, they’re responsible for the lives of children, they knock on doors and they have no idea what’s behind that door, they walk into danger every day. They start out at about $38,000 a year. They drive their own cars around the state; they have enormous responsibilities. That they take those jobs is a measure of their commitment to children, but It’s also a measure of our responsibility to make sure they’re well supported. We need to at least give them reasonable caseloads.
Last year, the agency did get more resources; how has that affected its work?
Last year we got money for voluntary services so that caseworkers are equipped to actually help families. Sometimes it’s something as simple as paying the mortgage. Sometimes families are under stress -- maybe there’s mental illness or drug addiction -- and that’s affecting the ability to parent. But if a case worker can help a parent get it together, the child may not be abused. They can’t help, if they don’t know that a child is at risk.
There’s work going on at DHHS to develop a system of care, to build a whole infrastructure of support for families before they’re at risk for abuse and neglect, before they ever come to DCYF. This is especially critical given what we know now about the damage to a child’s brain and development even when they’re at risk of being abused – as well as when they are abused.
What were the challenges of getting your office set up?
The Office of the Child Advocate is an independent agency established to oversee DCYF and promote the best interests of children. One of the most difficult things was making sure it’s understood to people throughout government that the office is independent -- that is very unique in the state.
Even while we were getting set up, people were calling us from the first day – foster parents called worried about children. Our number one call is about case workers who aren’t returning their calls, children who are out of state with no one checking on them, problems with children who are institutionalized and not necessarily getting their needs met, or just parents upset DCYF was involved with them at all.
When people have difficulties with DCYF, they should call the case worker, then if that’s not satisfactory, they should call the supervisor, and then they should call the ombudsman’s office; we don’t think they’re used enough. If things aren’t going well, it would come to us at a slightly higher level, at a policy level.
We have our own backlog of being able to respond to people. It’s somewhat overwhelming. We are three people. I have two full time staff and it’s a broad and intense level of work for us.