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DCYF reports little progress to joint committee

State House Bureau

April 26. 2017 8:23PM

DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers 

CONCORD — A joint House-Senate committee appointed to review the status of child protective services in New Hampshire got deep into the weeds at the Division for Children, Youth and Families, and discovered that not much has changed when it comes to the day-to-day functioning of the troubled agency.

It is still drastically understaffed based on the number of child abuse allegations it receives; still has an unsustainable turnover rate among social workers; still has an unacceptably large number of open and unresolved cases by industry standards; and has not yet implemented a plan announced on April 3 to spend $153,000 on overtime to clear up that backlog.

Republican State Rep. Dick Hinch, House majority leader and chair of the commission, had hoped to get an update on the overtime project from DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers and his interim DCYF director on Wednesday.

“In the past three weeks, has the additional overtime been effective?” he asked at the committee meeting in the Legislative Office Building. “How many cases have we resolved?”

Meyers said the effort has yet to get under way.

“We have developed an implementation plan and it will be starting this Friday,” he said, citing payroll cycles and other factors.

Interim Director Maureen Ryan took the committee through a detailed spreadsheet that could be called “DCYF by the numbers” as of March 31, and the numbers were not encouraging.

Of 116 social work positions authorized statewide, only 92 are filled and 27 of those individuals are either in training or on leave of absence. That means as of April 1, the state had only 65 active case workers to investigate child abuse claims coming in at an average of 1,100 a month.

On average, a New Hampshire Child Protective Service Worker is carrying 79 cases a month, with 17 of them new each month.

The Children’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services standards call for 12 active cases a month per social worker, and no more than one new case for every six open cases.

Referring to the 79 average open assessments per social worker, Meyers said, “That’s a very high number and that’s the issue the department has to address as we reform the system.”

Meyers described a vicious cycle in which social workers have to divert their attention to the most critical cases as they come in, leaving ongoing cases to languish well beyond the required 60 days.

“We are looking at our entire process of opening cases and how they are closed,” said Meyers. “It’s not about cutting corners or not adhering to best practices. It’s about adjusting the flow of this work.”

The commissioner said national consultants have been brought on to help address the problem.

“We have to keep kids safe, but we have to design our process and workflow so the staff can do the work. When you lose staff and the cases are rising, that’s where we run into this issue,” he said.

The staffing situation varies widely among the 12 district offices. While Berlin is fully staffed at four social workers, Manchester has only nine of 15 positions filled, and two of those are in training, leaving the state’s biggest city with only seven social workers on the ground today.

“The situation in Manchester is particularly troubling,” said committee member Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, after the hearing.

He pressed Meyers on the turnover rate among social workers.

“I don’t have a number in front of me, but I will acknowledge that it is a real concern,” said Meyers. “We have to make these positions sustainable for our workforce. If we bring someone in and do not have the requisite number of workers and caseloads, we are increasing the extent to which people can’t keep up and that will drive people away.”

The turnover rate in four district offices is 70 percent, according to interim DCYF Director Maureen Ryan.

“I believe when we get right-sized staffing wise, we will not see this level of turnover,” she said.

As the agency has struggled with staffing and funding issues since 2012, demand for its services has grown substantially, due in large part to the ongoing opioid addiction crisis, said Meyers. Allegations of child abuse prompting an investigation have gone up from 9,242 in 2012 to 10,525 in 2016.

The committee discussed many of the initiatives under way to address the problem, most of which are awaiting legislative funding and agency implementation, although Meyers said he is going forward with hiring a new associate commissioner to focus on DCYF, a new DCYF director and new child protective service workers.

“As we hire more staff and adjust our work flow, we are going to right this situation,” he said.

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