MANCHESTER — When Anna Carrigan of Manchester became convinced that a 3-year-old relative was being sexually abused in 2017, she thought the path forward was pretty clear.
“When this all started, we thought that surely we will bring this to the attention of the authorities and they will see everything that is wrong with this picture and will address it, and then my relative would be made safe, life would carry on,” she said.
But that’s not what happened.
In the ensuing two years, she and members of her immediate family became enmeshed in the state’s child protection system, known for classifying a disproportionately high number of cases as “unfounded.”
Carrigan claims their concerns and evidence were arbitrarily dismissed by the Manchester police detective assigned to the case, the case workers at DCYF who relied too heavily on the investigator’s conclusions and a mayor who took no interest in challenging any of those decisions.
At that point, most people would have run out of options, but Carrigan is not like most people. She has a master’s degree in social work from UNH and was previously licensed as a child and family therapist.
In her current role at the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, she is an administrator for the state’s asthma control program and will soon assume new responsibilities managing communications for all chronic diseases.
She was recognized in the March 28 edition of the DHHS internal employee newsletter in honor of Social Work Month: “A background in social work has proven invaluable in the Division of Public Health Services’ Asthma Control Program, as Program Administrator Anna Carrigan can attest.”
In addition to public health, one of her specialties is community organizing and she says she’s now putting that expertise to work in the interest of her family and others who’ve been caught up in what she called “the dumpster fire that is DCYF.”
“Unfortunately, public shaming seems to be ultimately what motivates the majority of these people, so if that’s what it takes, then so be it,” she said.
She recently launched a nonprofit, the New Road Project, with help from Manchester state Rep. Pat Long, a former alderman now serving as an at-large member on the school board. He has tried to intervene on her behalf in the child abuse case, but says he has also been stonewalled.
“We need a new road for child protection in New Hampshire, and we need you to walk it with us,” is the group’s mission.
The first major event will be a March for Children and Families, scheduled for July 27 (Aug. 3 rain date), in downtown Concord. A website (thenewroadproject.org) gives more details.
“We are also planning a silent vigil of 10 to 15 minutes honoring children who have suffered as part of this system, so families can submit names and photos, whether the children have passed away, got lost in the system or suffered abuse and neglect after being part of the system,” Carrigan said.
That system has been under intense scrutiny since the death of 3-year-old Brielle Gage of Nashua in 2014 and 21-month-old Sadie Willott of Manchester in 2015. Both died while their neglect and abuse cases were under DCYF review.
Both families are now represented by Bedford attorney Rus Rilee, who last year won a $6.75 million settlement with the state in a lawsuit brought by the grandparents of two young girls who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their parents while under DCYF supervision.
A Concord Monitor investigation in 2017 revealed that at least eight children in the child protective system died since 2011, when major cuts to agency funding took effect in the wake of the Great Recession. Multiple internal and external reviews have been conducted and new management has been brought in, but the agency continues to struggle to keep up with increasing reports of abuse and neglect fueled in large part by the opioid addiction crisis.
Despite new positions and increased appropriations in the 2018-19 budget, metrics are moving in the wrong direction, according to the most recent “DCYF workforce capacity and workload analysis.”
From September 2018 to February 2019, open assessments increased from 3,329 to 4,126; the vacancy rate in child protective worker positions went from 14 percent to 19 percent; and the average number of open assessments per case worker (which should be 12 to 15 according to national standards) rose from 34 to 45.
The Democratically controlled legislature is at odds with the governor over how many more positions to fund, as a House committee voted last Tuesday to fund 77 new positions, while Gov. Chris Sununu would authorize 62 but fund only 26.
“Not wanting dead children and refusing to fully fund the child protection system are diametrically opposed ideas,” says Carrigan. “They are mutually exclusive.”
She believes the situation deserves at least as much attention as the opioid epidemic, widely recognized as a public health emergency.
Her website contains a 12-point policy proposal that includes encouraging Sununu and lawmakers to declare a state of emergency in child protection and request additional federal funding.
She is also pushing for higher credentialing standards for child protective service workers, who for the most part are not licensed social workers.
“Case workers get much of the blame when things go wrong, but that’s misplaced. It should be redirected up the chain of command,” she said.
“Based on the current state of child protection, DCYF case workers are given an impossible task where it is a lose-lose for them and for those they are trying to help.”
“They arguably have the most difficult job in the entire government but are some of the lowest paid workers, which is a true testament to how much we actually value the work they do,” she said.
Carrigan has assumed personal and professional risk in taking on this battle, and is doing so entirely on her own, without the approval or involvement of her supervisors at DHHS, the parent agency of DCYF.
"My views are those of a private citizen, and not those in my role as a state employee," she said.
She can’t have a direct impact on DCYF funding, training, policy or supervisory decisions, but she can create a rallying point for those who are being directly affected and feel they have no place to turn.
“There has been no community grieving or community healing,” she says. “I feel that people are very alone in dealing with this, when in reality there are lots and lots of families who’ve been affected and there hasn’t been an opportunity for us to be angry and sad as a community and move toward restoration.”