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Former DCYF social worker says blame is misplaced

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau

April 08. 2017 9:49PM
The Center for the Support of Families, a national consulting agency, recently reviewed 232 cases handled by the Division for Children, Youth and Families as part of a top-to-bottom review of the agency. 

CONCORD - Ashley Rossiter realized her lifelong dream of becoming a social worker when she joined the state's child protective services department in 2013.

A 2012 graduate of Suffolk University with a B.S. in Human Services, she had been working for the state since 2011 in the Portsmouth office of Health and Human Services, handling welfare case management, Medicaid cases and food stamp applications.

When she was promoted to CPSW (child protective social worker) two years later, she says she took on her new assignment with great enthusiasm, despite its obvious challenges.

"I have always wanted to do it, my whole life," she said. "I've had this drive to help people, specifically children, who are society's most vulnerable."

A former stay-at-home mother who entered the workforce when her children started school, Rossiter felt she came to the job with much to offer an agency desperate for new talent.

Four years later, she finds herself the plaintiff in a civil suit against her former employer, claiming that the Division of Children Youth and Families 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 state's response to Rossiter's employment discrimination lawsuit, filed in Merrimack County Superior Court, is expected any day now, according to her attorney, Stephen Martin of Concord.

In the suit, Rossiter states that 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.

Another public challenge

Rossiter's lawsuit is one more public challenge to DCYF, which in the past two years has faced lawsuits and intense legislative scrutiny in the wake of two high-profile cases in which children died in abusive situations while their cases were under departmental review.

Rossiter says that, despite those tragedies, she found her fellow case workers on the front lines to be conscientious and dedicated to child safety. They have been made to carry too much of the public blame for a failed system, with entrenched managers who were focused more on closing cases than removing children from dangerous situations, she said.

Longtime DCYF Director Lorraine Bartlett was placed on administrative leave in mid-March after the Concord Monitor reported on 1,500 cases that were closed over a two-day period without following proper procedures in February 2016.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, according to Rossiter, saying that, while Bartlett may have retired, her "minions" in middle management remain.

Without a thorough housecleaning, the culture of "close, close, close" will be difficult to change, despite the many initiatives now under way, she said.

"The culture is not to bring cases forward," Rossiter said during an interview at her attorney's office. "It creates more work. We're going to wash our hands of it, and blame it on someone else if something happens."

She continued, "There were times when I called and said, 'These kids cannot be here; the mom and dad are high; this house is a mess,' and I was told, 'We don't have foster parents right now. Do you want to sleep at the office with them?'"

Focused on closing cases

When given an opportunity to respond to Rossiter's insider view of DCYF operations, Health and Human Services spokesman Jake Leon, citing pending litigation, declined comment.

Rossiter has been following the news about initiatives to improve outcomes at DCYF, including a plan announced last week to clear 2,800 overdue cases, using proper procedures.

"That won't clean it up," she said. "I have friends who still work there who call me and say, 'We're going to end up in the same boat as closing out those 1,500 cases.'"

Many of the remaining cases are open, according to Rossiter, because social workers still have concerns, and keeping the cases open enables them to keep in touch with the families. But the focus on closing cases, cited by the outside reviewers of DCYF, is pervasive in the agency.

Rossiter provided copies of multiple emails that suggest high-volume "close-a-thons" in which cases where shut down en masse.

In one email, a supervisor at the Southern District Office in Nashua pressures her to close multiple cases identified by number in the fall of 2014.

In March 2016, the same supervisor directed her staff to take advantage of another so-called "Paper Day," with a call to "remember, you are to be working on closing assessments today and tomorrow. This is the only thing you should be doing unless you discussed otherwise with your supervisor."

In August 2016, the district supervisor informed her staff, "State office has asked us to devote an entire day to closing assessments . on that day, we would like all assessment staff and all supervisors to be focused on closing overdue assessments . Thank you all, let's see how many overdue assessments we can close on that day."

Seeking a middle ground

Rossiter says it was her refusal to close cases that caused her problems.

"The bulk of them were ones I didn't feel comfortable about closing, because I was baby-sitting them," she said. "I was always getting additional reports. I couldn't close them as unfounded, and I couldn't do anything like bring them into court. But they were still sitting there because we still had concerns about these families."

The legislative committees investigating DCYF have acknowledged the need for some options between closing a case and taking it to Family Court.

A change in the state's child protection statute also is under consideration. Current law places protecting parental rights on equal footing with child safety. A change under consideration would elevate child protection to the top line.

In almost four years on the job, Rossiter said only 20 of her cases were brought to Family Court, despite her fears about many others.

"For some reason, in New Hampshire, parents' rights go above child safety," she said. "I understand that parents have rights to their children, and Constitutional rights, but I think the number one facet above all else should be child safety, and when we're getting multiple reports of broken bones, injuries, a boot-print on the back, we need to do something."

Initiatives underway

The many initiatives outlined by DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers and his interim DCYF director could yield good results, but without more changes in management, implementation could be spotty, according to the former staffer.

While there is a high turnover rate of frontline workers, managers come to DCYF and seem to never leave, she said.

Bartlett was there nearly 30 years. "Her deputy director has been there 30 years; all the field administrators have been there 20 or 30 years; so where is the new leadership?" Rossiter asked.

Yet, turnover among social workers is in the 25 to 30 percent range every year.

Despite her recent experiences, Rossiter says she hopes to eventually resume her career in social work.

Through her lawsuit and willingness to speak publicly, she hopes to bring a perspective to the DCYF crisis that has been lacking as lawmakers, administrators and consultants have dominated the discussion.

"I just don't want any more kids to die," she said. "I think the two who passed away . that was very, very preventable. Had the agency done its job, I believe 100 percent they would be alive today."

dsolomon@unionleader.comout


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