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Another View -- Molly Kelly: Chris Sununu is failing to protect vulnerable children

August 30. 2018 8:07PM

WHEN IT COMES to caring for New Hampshire’s most vulnerable children, Gov. Chris Sununu gets a failing grade. There’s no other conclusion to draw from a federal government report released this month.

We face a crisis at the Division of Children, Youth and Families. It is not new, but the latest evidence is a heartbreaking reminder that the state of New Hampshire is failing too many children.

The federal government said it reviewed dozens of cases from the past 12 months and found children are not being kept safe. DCYF is “not in substantial conformity” when it comes to reviewing cases, training staffers, licensing foster and adoptive parents, and keeping employees and recruiting new caseworkers to the agency. The report makes clear that New Hampshire is not doing its job of ensuring the welfare and safety of children.

An independent audit from December 2016 laid out the problems and provided recommendations to fix them. The audit found, among other issues, that the agency lacks enough caseworkers, employees are undertrained or mistrained, and voluntary service programs are lacking. DCYF was not meeting its obligation to protect children at risk.

Sununu became governor knowing that DCYF and the state’s obligation for the safety of our children was in jeopardy. He has not done enough to fix it. Instead, his priority in his 2017 budget was giving away $100 million in tax breaks to the wealthiest corporations, when he should have ensured DCYF had every resource needed to protect our children.

Sununu then failed to follow the solutions outlined in the 2016 audit. Wasting a year in which children suffered, in 2017 he refused to fund voluntary services for at-risk children and families, and he failed to get enough caseworkers to respond to children.

Only after the death earlier this year of a child who could have benefited from voluntary services did the Legislature restore some voluntary services. But the state has taken incremental approaches and not delivered enough funds to adequately staff DCYF.

Just look at the average caseload per caseworker — it’s almost four times larger than the number of cases a single employee should have to handle. DCYF is operating with about one-fifth of the caseworkers it needs to ensure the well-being of the children it protects. For $5 million — a fraction of Sununu’s $100 million in tax handouts to corporations — we could address this problem that is putting at risk the lives of New Hampshire children.

We know how to solve these problems, but solving them has to be a priority. I’m calling on the state to take several steps.

First, provide full, consistent and stable funding for child protection and child violence protection in the state budget, not through one-time appropriations from one-off sources, like the Children’s Health Insurance Program money.

Second, follow the recommendations from the 2016 independent audit report of DCYF and the 2018 DHHS Adequacy and Enhancement report including fully funded voluntary services for families at risk, establishing community-based prevention programs, and reducing caseloads to the national standard of 12 per case worker.

Third, set up an independent system of care that’s outside of the child protection context, helping to address the needs of children, prevent violence, and shift out of crisis mode.

This is what I would do as governor. The lives of children are at stake. Cutting corners on the DCYF budget does not save money. It is fiscally irresponsible, and puts children’s lives at risk. And the state will continue to pay out large settlements for the harm done to children. It must stop.

Molly Kelly, D-Harrisville, is a candidate for governor and a former state senator.

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