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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: A social worker's lament

August 31. 2018 6:52PM

During a gubernatorial forum on New Hampshire children last week at St. Anselm College, Gov. Chris Sununu addressed the problems in the state's child protective services head on, calling it the "DCYF crisis."

Hardly a week goes by without some new bombshell being dropped on the Division for Children, Youth and Families. A negative review by federal officials two weeks ago was followed by news of a $275,000 settlement with a fired social worker.

Sununu summed up the situation he inherited at DCYF this way: "It was a disaster."

"I don't know what was going on before we showed up," he said. "As citizens, you should be angry about the lack of leadership that was there."

Sununu then went on to list the leadership changes, including a new assistant commissioner of Health and Human Services, a new DCYF director and an independent child advocate, along with all the new front-line positions that have been funded.

"Walk into a DCYF office now and morale is up," said Sununu. "When I walked into one in 2017, most of them looked beaten, devastated. This was their passion, their life, how they wanted to give back."

Ashley Rossiter, the social worker who won her wrongful discharge lawsuit, says she wanted to give back, but was fired for trying to fight back against poor practices that were jeopardizing child welfare.

She still keeps in touch with former co-workers who remain on the front lines of this crisis, and says they would take issue with Sununu's assessment. As part of her agreement with the state, in addition to the $275,000 settlement, she is guaranteed a one-on-one with new DCYF Director Joe Ribsam, who came to New Hampshire from the Garden State ("Jersey Joe I like to call him," says Sununu).

Jersey Joe is likely to get an earful.

"What I'm hearing is that, while the governor has gotten rid of upper management, upper management wasn't particularly the problem," says Rossiter. "It's the middle management, the ones actually making decisions about cases, who are actually the problem."

Many rank-and-file workers are still reeling from the decision by the newly appointed leadership in May to appoint long-time manager Sherry Ermel to the position of deputy director of DCYF, despite the fact that she was arrested and charged the previous November with domestic violence, simple assault. Investigators say she threw a ceramic mug full of water at her wife during an argument.

Ermel withdrew her name from consideration and continues to serve as associate bureau chief of field services. Her not guilty plea still stands, and she can petition to get the arrest annulled at the end of the year.

Rossiter said there is concern among rank and file at DCYF that once the dust clears, Ermel's promotion will be back on the table. "They haven't learned from their mistakes, and it makes you wonder if they ever will," she said.

Sununu, who expressed concerns about Ermel's promotion in May, insists the operation is turning the corner.

"Has it completely turned around? No. But our strides are huge," he said. "I'm going to take credit for one thing: putting the right emphasis on it, and bringing the right people in."

Tariff turnaround

Newspaper publishers in New Hampshire and beyond heaved a sigh of relief last week as the U.S. International Trade Commission blocked tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on imported newsprint from Canadian paper mills.

The ITC's unanimous decision eliminates import taxes that drove up costs by as much as 32 percent for publishers nationwide.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was among the sponsors of the bipartisan PRINT Act of 2018 (Protecting Rational Incentives in Newspaper Trade,) which would have delayed the import tax on newsprint.

"Our democracy depends on a free and empowered press, and local newspapers play a critical role in educating the public and fostering civic discourse," she said in a statement issued after the trade commission ruling.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, also co-sponsored the PRINT Act.

"I am pleased that this action will end the tariffs on Canadian newsprint, which had been harming the bottom lines of our local papers and threatening the viability of the free press," Hassan said in a statement.

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