January 30. 2017 8:47PM

Ex-social worker says warnings were ignored

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau


CONCORD — A former social worker in the Division for Children, Youth & Families claims in a lawsuit that DCYF fired her, in part, for protesting decisions to return children to what she believed were unsafe situations.

One boy, she alleges, set himself on fire after her warnings were ignored.

The employment discrimination lawsuit filed on Jan. 27 in Merrimack County Superior Court on behalf of Ashley Rossiter of Georgetown, Mass., claims her “attempts to ensure the safety of New Hampshire children” resulted in reprimands, poor evaluations, multiple investigations, and denial of promotions and pay increases until she was fired on Oct. 4, 2016.

Rossiter’s lawsuit is one more public challenge to the state’s child protective service agency, which has in the past year been scrutinized by an outside consulting firm (the Center for the Support of Families), and the Commission on Child Abuse Fatalities.

A bipartisan legislative task force has been appointed to recommend funding and structural changes to the DCYF and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency has been under fire since two children under DCYF supervision died of child abuse, and a public lawsuit was filed over the state’s handling of a sexual abuse case involving two children whose parents are now serving jail time.

Rossiter’s attorney, Stephen Martin of Concord, accuses the state of violating state and federal employment discrimination statutes, the N.H. Whistleblower’s Protection Act and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act in its handling of Rossiter, who had worked for DHHS since March 2011.

‘Perfect evaluations’

Rossiter’s employment with DCYF appears to have been fairly uneventful between 2011 and 2013, when “she received nearly perfect evaluations under two different supervisors,” according to the lawsuit.

In 2013, she was involved in a serious ATV accident that caused multiple injuries and required her employer to make various accommodations.

The lawsuit outlines a series of accusations by supervisors regarding Rossiter’s conduct in the workplace that began after the accident, leading to disciplinary action in 2014.

After a poor evaluation, she was put on a “corrective action plan” that she claims was based on false information and was in retaliation for requesting accommodation for her injuries and family medical leave.

In February 2015, she filed a discrimination claim with the state Commission for Human Rights, which is still under review.

While much of her complaint revolves around claims of discrimination due to disability and a hostile work environment, a good portion cites “reprimands related to attempts to ensure children’s safety,” starting in March 2014.

Disciplined for long hours

Rossiter had successfully petitioned circuit court to allow DCYF to remove certain children from their parents’ home because of severe neglect, and she stayed late at work to track down the family because they had left the state. She located them in Indiana.

“When she reported this to her supervisors, she was met with disdain and formal discipline for working late,” states the lawsuit. “Ultimately, despite being able to use the assistance of local police, DCYF took no further action to bring the children back to New Hampshire.”

Rossiter claims that subsequent incidents of domestic violence occurred in that household, further endangering the children.

The lawsuit alleges that Rossiter worked late multiple times to try to locate children in danger or to otherwise investigate reports of children in unsafe situations, and “she was reprimanded for doing so each time.”

In July 2014, she was assigned to a case of a boy identified as JM, who had marks on his body suggesting that he was beaten.

“Although the child stated that he did it to himself, medical professionals opined that someone else had to have done it to him,” the lawsuit states, claiming that Rossiter’s supervisors told her to close the case as unfounded, but she refused and was disciplined.

Child suffers burns

Rossiter claims that in October 2014 a child involved in one of her cases told her he planned to hurt himself or someone else because of abuse he was enduring, and that he had hidden the means to do so in the woods.

The lawsuit claims she shared that information with police, who “advised that they could not do anything because there was no removal order.”

Rossiter says she asked her supervisors for approval to obtain a removal order, but was told she had accumulated “too much comp time” and because she had already reported the situation to police, it was up to them to handle it.

“The child ultimately set himself on fire and suffered third-degree burns over his body,” according to the lawsuit. “Ashley reported the injuries to her supervisor, and was later disciplined for overstating his injuries, even though she did not.”

DHHS spokesman Jake Leon referred all questions regarding the lawsuit to Assistant Attorney General Lisa English, who was unavailable for comment.

New schedules

Leon did address the question of punishing social workers for working more than 40 hours.

“All department classified staff work regular hours, which is typically 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” he said. “That includes DCYF. ... DCYF assessment staff are permitted to work past normal working hours in consultation with supervisors as circumstances require.”

Leon pointed out the department is establishing a program for 24/7 coverage that provides for additional staff.

That effort has been implemented in several DHHS district offices and is being expanded as staff are hired.

Martin says his client could have let her complaints work their way through the Human Rights Commission, but felt compelled to go public in state court, with a demand for a jury trial.

“It was important to Ashley that these issues be brought to light publicly in an effort to vindicate not only her own rights, but to be a voice for other employees similarly situated, as well as for the children that she worked so hard to protect,” he said.

The complaint demands unspecified lost wages and future wages, as well as damages for anxiety, depression, pain and suffering, injury to reputation, and attorney’s fees and costs.

dsolomon@unionleader.com