Division for Children, Youth and Families Faces Deep Challenges

Apr 12, 2017

Brielle Gage
Credit Courtesy photo

  The New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families is now looking for a new leader. That person would take the helm of a department beset by overburdened child protection workers and a lack of resources. Reporter Allie Morris of The Concord Monitor has written a multi-part series on DCYF, drawing on documents and interviews with current and former employees, Governor Chris Sununu, and people who have been the subject of DYCF cases, as well as information gathered through Right to Know requests. She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about her series, “Fatal Flaws.”

You started your report with a close and, I should add, heartbreaking look at the last year of the life of three year old Brielle Gage, who was killed in 2014 by her mother Katlyn Marin. DCYF had been investigating reports of abusive of Marin’s children, but DCYF still wasn’t able to prevent Brielle’s death. Why was that?

I think most listeners would know the name Brielle Gage. She was the girl who died in 2014. Once it became known that she was under agency watch, lawmakers were up in arms. How could this happen? What my reporting revealed was that, not only DCYF, but the police and the court system had also been involved with this family.

What had happened was, the children, in one of the most startling moves, were actually removed from Katlin’s home when she came under police investigation for beating some of her children with a belt. The children were eventually put back about two months later. It’s hard to tell exactly why that happened because a lot of these court proceedings regarding child abuse and neglect are all under seal. But I spoke with one former worker who said that part of the problem is that DCYF had missed a deadline in the case to turn over discovery and that prompted, in at least one occasion, the children to be returned to Katlin Marin.

There was an independent review of DCYF and one of the things they concluded was that these child service workers are overburdened. There’s a lot that they have to keep track of and isn’t entirely surprising, given how much they have to do, that they would forget something like that, or miss a deadline.

Yes. What this review found is that, often times, about a third of the workforce is either out on leave, they’ve left the position vacant, or they’re in training. So the bulk of this work is shouldered by about 54 employees.

What I found through some national data is that New Hampshire ranks in the top five for worker caseloads, and we’re among the lowest states for child protection workers per capita. So these service workers are dealing with these huge caseloads and, at the same time, we have a state where they rarely substantiate reports of abuse and neglect, which means that they rarely name them “founded” and then take action, whether that’s providing services to this family or actually removing the children from their home.

In some of these cases that I investigated—for example, Sadie Willot, who was killed—DCYF had investigated eight reports of suspected abuse and neglect within 21 months and all of them were deemed unfounded before she was eventually killed.

There’s a middle ground between founded and unfounded accusations of abuse and neglect. Some states have that middle ground that would warrant some level of involvement by the state. New Hampshire doesn’t have that, but the state is considering some kind of label. What would that label enable the state to do?

The final policy isn’t in perfect form yet, so it’s still kind of a working discussion, but one of the problems is that child protection workers say that, in order to reach a finding and go to court, it has to meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect. But at times they might have a report where a parent might spank a child or be using marijuana and they decide that it might not meet that level of abuse or neglect, but they want to show in the file that the parents said that did happen.

Right now, there’s no way to do that, so most of those reports might be labeled “unfounded.” Experts say that’s not a good practice because, if child protection workers need to look back at a family, they’d see a whole bunch of unfounded reports instead of something labeling it that it did happen, which is what the legislature is working through now.

You profiled one DYCF caseworker, Demetrios Tsaros, who said doing his job involves a lot of triage—that he’s busy doing face-to-face investigations as much as he can, and that’s leaving paperwork about the cases he investigates at the bottom of the list. Is his story representative of what DCYF child protection service workers experience?

Yes, I definitely think so. They describe caseloads at DCYF that can be 50 cases in a month’s time, whereas national experts recommend case workers only have 12 open investigations at any one time.

Under current policy, DCYF, when it gets a report, has to meet with the child face-to-face within a certain amount of time, the workers have to talk to parents. They’re supposed to talk to people outside the home, talk to siblings. That can be time-consuming, especially if you’re trying to track down some of these families, if someone who reported the abuse doesn’t provide an address.

As Demetrios and others said, at times these case workers are being assigned 20-30 new investigations per month, which is more than the days that they have in that timeframe. So I think, as Demetrious said, a lot of workers feel that it is triage.

One of the things he said that I found so interesting is that he’s got to prioritize his day, and his priorities would be going out and doing those physical investigations. The paperwork related to those investigations is, in some ways, a bureaucratic follow-up, and it’s a lower priority. It’s not to say he doesn’t do it, but that it’s a lower priority, which would kind of explain how there would be such a backlog of cases—if all case workers were, in fact, doing this.

Definitely. And what we’re seeing now is that the agency has a backlog of about 2,800 open abuse and neglect investigations that they’re trying to close out. Experts say that’s a problem because, if these are open and something does happen to the child, then DCYF may get into a trouble over that, but at the same time, if enough time passes—say, 60 or 90 days from the time that you’ve checked on the child and done all your reporting—when you close the case, the same circumstances may not be in place.

So is improving DCYF a matter of providing enough resources for folks to go and not only check on the children but also complete the required paperwork?

That’s a big part of it. That’s one of the expert recommendations. The state needs to hire enough staff, and that’s something Governor Sununu put in his budget, $4.4 million over two years to bring on 20 new staffers. The Department has already added 20 new positions to the child protection agency, but you know, it’s a matter of filling those positions, and I think the agency has struggled to find people in a timely manner to take on this job, especially when burnout is a leading factor for why child protective workers are leaving.

There are going to be people listening to this and wondering, “How can I help? What can I do?” You did a little reporting on things average people can do to step up and help these kids.

Yes, definitely. Every time DCYF decides to go to court and petition to remove a child from their home, they turn to the foster care system for help, and the state has a serious shortage of foster families currently who are able to take these children, and as a result, some kids are being placed hundreds of miles away from their homes, support networks and schools, which can be really traumatizing, especially when a child is removed from their parents.

Another thing is CASA, which actually advocates for child victims of abuse and neglect in proceedings. It’s also looking for volunteers and experts say something you can do as well is join a mentoring program, Big Brothers Big Sisters or a local Friends Program, to provide positive influences or role models for children who may not be seeing that at home.