The Division of Children, Youth, and Families has been under intense scrutiny in recent years, after two toddlers who had been involved with the agency were killed by their mothers in a span of just ten months.
The fallout has included legal battles, the director's ouster, and an independent investigation that revealed an agency beset by high turnover, an overworked staff, limited funding, and restrictive policies.
But despite the formation of a legislative task force in response to the independent report released last December, lawmakers have been slow to put together a package of bills addressing DCYF's problems, according to Concord Monitor reporter Allie Morris.
“We haven’t seen the quickness you’d imagine when Speaker Jasper first put together this task force, “ said Morris on The Exchange. Her four-part investigative series, Fatal Flaws, found that child death related to abuse and neglect has been on the rise in New Hampshire -- tragedies apparently enabled by an agency in crisis.
Morris found that case workers in New Hampshire struggled with crushing case loads, compared with other states. "Speaking to some of them, they just had so much work on their plate that it was like triage constantly," she said. "They were having a hard time really thoroughly investigating all of these reports of abuse, checking up on the children, making sure the families were getting the services they needed that could prevent them from coming back from the system later on."
For John DeJoie, legislative advocate for Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, a sense of urgency about DCYF's struggles has been sorely lacking for too long -- including among legislators.
"And I think as advocates we need to stand up and create a sense of urgency,” he said. “At some point, we have to protect the kids today. Hiring staff is going to take time, bringing consultants is going to take time, making transformative change will take time. What about the kids today?”
Families don’t wake up every morning planning to abuse their kids. Families abuse their kids for a number of reasons and typically it's pretty acute stress, whether it’s poverty, job loss, or drugs; that is typically the indicator that pushes parents to abuse their kids. And we can intervene far sooner than we do through the voluntary services. -- John DeJoie, Child and Family Services of N.H.
As of now, for instance, there are 2,800 reports that have passed the 60-day deadline for DCYF review, he said. That's potentially a lot of children whose well-being and very lives may be at risk.
"The concern is we still have a system where we don’t have enough staff, despite the department's best efforts," DeJoie said. "Cases are going longer and longer. We’re getting more and more behind. At some point we need a hard reset. At some point we just need to stop and craft a system with the workers we have that is workable and figure out some out-of-the-box way to address the backlog, to address some of the other issues. At this point we’re running faster and faster, and we’re falling off the treadmill."
But DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers, who has been in the job for about a year, says he has taken multiple steps to shore up the agency, including transferring money for various needs -- from making sure case workers have laptops out in the field to hiring staff to improve 24/7 coverage.
In addition to working to hire a new DCYF director, Meyers said, his department supports creating an entirely new position -- an associate commissioner -- to be nominated by the governor, that will help oversee the agency, well as programs serving juveniles.
"We’re also bringing in a national firm to work with us on quality assurance, to make sure that our staff, supervisors, case workers are really following up on the cases that present the highest risk. We’re going forward and asking for legislative support as we implement what we’re referring to as an implementation team to help implement the 20 recommendations made by the Center for the Support of Families. We’re also asking for money. "
The new quality-assurance program will help the agency prioritize high risk cases, Meyers said. And he expects it to be up and running in four to six weeks. Meyers also supports establishing an independent child advocate -- an idea gaining support in the legislature.
As for urgency, Meyers insists he has plenty of it.
"I agree that the kids cannot wait at all," he said.
Still, a number of DCYF positions remain unfilled. As for the 2,800 overdue reports, Meyers says he has brought in "external resources" to help existing staff tackle the backlog.
"That's something I'm monitoring very, very closely. And if we don't make an appreciable impact on that backlog very soon, then I’ll seek more outside resources in order to address that. But this is not something that we're leaving for some other day. This is something we are really focused on and wanting to address now."
In an email excerpted below, Exchange listener Kimberly raised several issues affecting the agency's ability to help families:
Five years ago New Hampshire legislators eliminated all funding to help and support at-risk families. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the connection between the rise in tragic outcomes in the past few years to the elimination of supports and services for parents. It is also astounding that New Hampshire's DCYF does not practice common sense policies like keeping a record of reports, even if classified unfounded (or whatever language DCYF uses to not act on a report), to see patterns over the long term emerge like other states do.
According to Allie Morris, the legislature last year voted down a proposal that would have allowed the agency to keep records for more than three years, erring on the side of parental privacy and due process.
"That was kind of an upset for these groups that had been pushing to say these reports are needed to look back at a family's pattern and see how many times it may have come into contact with the department so we have a fuller picture of what we're dealing with," Morris said.
That tension -- between protecting privacy rights and allowing access to records in the interest of protecting children -- has existed for some time, according to DeJoie.
But has the pendulum swung too far in the direction of privacy?
DeJoie says it's always moving. "That's why I think you want to have more and more people at the table. You want to make sure you have lots of advocates at the table. You want to bring in legislators, particularly legislators who disagree with DCYF having power. You work that through and you hopefully come out with a better product at the end. We don't want to go so far to the other side because of the deaths of kids that we start trampling on parental rights. There is a happy medium. We just have to struggle to find out what that happy medium is."
The state also has much work to do on improving communication among various groups involved in protecting children, as well as more clearly defining abuse and neglect, Meyers said.
Outside investigators found DCYF lawyers hadn't brought certain cases forward because they felt judges were setting too high a standard for proof of actual harm to a child, Meyers said. Judges meanwhile told investigators they didn't understand why more cases weren't coming forward.
"So at the very least, there's a lack of effective communication and that clearly has to be addressed," Meyers said.
What could help, say child advocates, is establishing a new oversight category that would allow DCYF to better keep tabs on troubled families. Right now, the state deems a report either founded or unfounded, with no middle ground.
"Other states have a third tier... to show something did happen, so that if a worker looks back, they could show the true history in a family," said Allie Morris. "Unfounded is kind of misleading because it doesn't mean the report was untrue."
In the case of three-year-old Brielle Gage, something as mundane as a missed deadline for court paper work may have paved the way for an abusive mother to regain custody of Brielle and her four brothers.
The toddler was beaten to death in August of 2014 -- the tragic end to a long story of abuse that had been documented by DCYF. Brielle's mother, Katlyn Marin, was sentenced to 45 years to life in prison for second-degree murder.
"These hearings are all shielded from the public," Morris said. "You can't even get a docket number when you're looking for these cases of abuse and neglect, unlike a normal court case, and so it's impossible for me to get the file and actually look through what type of case DCYF presented and what the judge may have determined after the fact."
Brielle Gage was one of at least eight children who had been involved with DCYF before their deaths, Morris said. "A number of children were killed while DCYF had an overdue report into some sort of allegation prior to their death," Morris said.