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NH child protection services get failing grades in federal review

By DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader

August 17. 2018 10:26PM




CONCORD — A review of New Hampshire’s child protective services conducted by federal officials concludes the state still has a long way to go in protecting children from abuse.

After reviewing 65 cases in process at Manchester, Concord and Seacoast offices of the Division for Children, Youth and Families in April, officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say the state is failing in all seven outcomes considered essential to an effective child welfare system.

“None of the seven outcomes was found to be in substantial conformity,” according to the report, released on Friday.

Among the report’s findings:

• The quality of risk and safety assessments was concerning in both in-home and foster-care cases. The agency needs to ensure that children are seen consistently, including observing children in their home environments.

• DCYF needs to meet with all children in a family and with all of the children’s caregivers, especially fathers.

• Too many safety plans rely on informal agreements with parents on what they would do to keep children safe. Monitoring of safety plans also was found to be insufficient and was not adapted to new safety threats.

• High staff caseloads affect quality of work and the staff’s ability to meet frequently with children, parents, and foster parents, conduct risk assessments, safety planning and monitoring, complete comprehensive needs assessments and provide services.

Intense scrutiny

The state’s child protection agency has been under intense scrutiny for the past two years after child fatalities in 2014 and 2015 involving children whose cases were under DCYF review.

The state recently settled one lawsuit against DCYF for $6 million. At least one new lawsuit has been filed and others are expected.

The Legislature has appointed no fewer than three study or oversight committees and had at least two outside agencies examine specific aspects of DCYF operations prior to the federal review.

Several bills signed into law in 2017 and 2018 were designed to increase DCYF funding.

“Transforming our child welfare program has been among the highest priorities of this administration, and it will continue to be,” said Gov. Chris Sununu, alluding to many of those initiatives.

Newly appointed director of DCYF, Joe Ribsam, predicted to the Union Leader in May that the federal review, the first since 2010, would not be favorable.

“When you compare the system in the 2010 review to 2018, you are going to see significant declines across all categories,” he said at the time.

“You can attribute some of that to the opioid challenges, but also to the state of the system around staffing, case loads and the lack of providers to help support families and keep kids safe at home in the first place.”

Transformation plan

In addition to Ribsam, there is new leadership at the highest levels of the agency, and an independent Office of Child Advocate has been created and staffed.

The Legislature in the past two years has approved $1.1 million for foster care adoption programs, rate increases and services and $1.5 million for voluntary services for families at risk, while increasing funding for social workers.

Ribsam advised lawmakers earlier this year that the state should aim for the national standard of 12 cases per social worker, but when lawmakers saw the $5 million price tag, they declined.

Current caseloads stand at about 40 per social worker, below the high-water mark of nearly 95 but still well above national standards.

“We share the report’s sense of urgency and believe it provides DCYF and the Legislature with further clarity about the challenges and opportunities within New Hampshire’s child welfare system,” said state DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey A. Meyers.

“The first and most important step we’ve taken together with the governor and the Legislature is to increase staffing at DCYF. But, there is more work to be done.”

DCYF will be submitting an improvement plan this fall to address caseloads and improve outcomes for children and families involved with the child welfare system, Meyers said.

Priorities include new services for children and families, more engagement with families, better recruitment and retention of foster and adoptive parents and more specialized training for both DCYF staff and providers.

Federal Child and Family Service Reviews are conducted regularly in all states to help identify strengths and areas needing improvement in child welfare practices.

Federal officials will hold a public forum in New Hampshire to present the results of their review, tentatively set for Sept. 12, with time and location to be released later.

The review can be downloaded at https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dcyf/documents/nh-cfsr-2018-report.pdf.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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