An agency under fire, under staffed, and under review: That's how a recent report describes the situation at the state's Division of Children Youth and Families. It reveals an agency in crisis: too few social workers and inadequate training, compounded by weak laws that leave children under-protected. We ask how officials and lawmakers will address this.
- Lorraine Bartlett - Director of the Division of Children, Youth and Families. She has been with the agency for twenty-eight years, working also in child protective services and as a supervisor before becoming Director in 2014.
- Wendy Gladstone - Pediatrician from Exeter. She specializes in child advocacy and protection.
- Demetrios Tsaros - Child Protection Services Worker with DCYF.
- Representative Skip Berrien - Democrat from Exeter, a member of the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities.
- Senator John Reagan - serves on the advisory board of DCYF.
The central intake number for reports of child abuse or neglect: 1 800 8 9 4- 5 5 3 3. Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, social workers take reports and provide information.
An independent review of the state's Division of Children, Youth, and Families found numerous problems, including too few social workers with too many cases and inadequate legal authority. The report validated long-standing concerns among staff, said DCYF director Lorraine Bartlett.
The drug crisis has only exacerbated problems, Bartlett said.
"We saw an increase in the number of protective reports coming in that spoke to substance abuse but also an increase in the number of overall reports in New Hampshire. So in the state fiscal year 2014 you saw a little over 9,000 reports. By state fiscal year 2016 we saw around 10,524 reports, with the same number of staff trying to manage that work."
Turnover and retention issues have also plagued the division, she said, and social workers often take extended leave because of work-related stress, creating more work for the remaining staff.
When asked about whether the agency has been underfunded --- as the report suggested -- Senator John Reagan, who has served on the DCYF advisory board, expressed frustration with both leadership at the agency and with the number of vacancies.
"There's been nobody that's carried that message to the legislature," he said. "There's ways to get more money for emergencies, and there's ways to get more money. Now this is an agency that is funded for so many positions, and the positions are not filled. And granted, we need to expand that base number, but the basic numbers are not filled. So there is a probably a recruiting failure...We're asking the department that exists to do what they're supposed to be doing and if not, we don't need excuses. We need leadership. We need a plan."
Among the report's 20 recommendations: making efforts to work collaboratively with the medical, education, and law enforcement communities; strengthening the statutory definition of "neglect."
A joint House and Senate committee will review the recommendations this next session.
Representative Skip Berrien meanwhile praised DCYF workers and said that it is very hard to move beyond a "massive understaffing of the agency."
As for keeping the issue on the legislative front burner, Berrien said:
"Well I think that that comes both from our political will to be able to move things ahead. We have to bring the public along on these issues. But this joint committee will be proposing legislation to be able to address these recommendations. But in addition I'd also like to mention that the commission has been reviewing a proposal to have an Office of Child Advocate here in New Hampshire and that would be a position that would provide oversight of the child protection system ongoing on a permanent basis. "
DCYF child protective services worker, Demetrios Tsaros said, under the law, he is able to assess and respond to imminent danger or harm.
"I feel my experience is that I've always been able to do an adequate job. Again as far as being able to assess if a child's an imminent or immediate danger...the parents don't have to cooperate; they don't have to let me into their home. They have the right to not allow me to interview to speak to their children, say, the child victim or even the siblings. Could could that get in the way of doing a what we'd like to think of as a very thorough assessment? It does. But I do feel that I'm able to do a good job as far as assessing for immediate danger or imminent harm."
But the report finds that although DCYF workers are in the position to assess and act on the immediate safety of children, as Tsaros experiences, there is less attention to "the serious risk of harm to children that, unchecked, may lead to serious harm or injury to children."
Among the contributing factors to that finding: "A seriously overloaded DCYF assessment work force."