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DCYF leaders say caseloads still high, turnover still a problem

State House Bureau

March 11. 2018 12:47PM
The N.H. Division of Children, Youth and Families' new leadership briefs Gov. Chris Sununu and the Executive Council last week on the state of the agency. From left, Thomas Pristow, deputy commissioner, Department of Health and Human Services; Joseph Ribsam, division director of DCYF; and, standing, Christine Tappan, HHS associate commissioner. (Courtesy)

CONCORD - The state's child protective services are expected to get a boost with spending bills that go before the Senate this week, but the three top leaders of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, all new to the job, gave a stark assessment of the agency despite investments made in the past year.

Caseloads are still too high, morale is low, turnover remains a problem, and the agency is unable to be proactive in the protection of New Hampshire children, they told Gov. Chris Sununu and members of the Executive Council in a breakfast briefing last week.

"The system in New Hampshire is literally reactive to abuse and neglect," said Joseph Ribsam, newly hired head of DCYF. "It is not empowered to intervene prior to making a final determination of abuse and neglect, so parents cycle through the process over and over again until children are finally harmed, then the state intervenes."

Ribsam, credited with turning around New Jersey's child protective service over 10 years in the Garden State, says it doesn't have to be that way.

"Most states have the capacity to intervene when families are at risk, and engage them in a voluntary way," he said in a presentation full of troubling facts and figures.

The department still has nearly 2,000 open assessments of child abuse reports that are overdue for resolution; turnover among social workers went from 25 percent of staff per year in 2016 to 30 percent of staff in 2017.

The number of child abuse reports coming into the office continues to rise - from a little over 10,000 in 2016 to 12,000 in 2017 (compared to 8,000 10 years ago).

The number of children placed in foster care was fairly stable in the first half of the decade, ranging from 643 in 2010 to 622 in 2015, but in 2016 the number shot up to 765, hit 964 in 2017 and is at 1,246 as of Jan. 5, 2018.

In the same time period, the number of adults willing to provide foster homes has steadily declined.

"We've more than doubled our foster care population in the past three years," Ribsam said. "That's not a good thing."

 (Source: DCYF reports)

 (Source: DCYF reports)

 (Source: DCYF reports)

Key is intervention

The opioid addiction crisis is often cited as a major reason for the spike, along with deficiencies in the state's child welfare and foster care systems.

"In New Jersey, we had 12,500 kids in foster care when I arrived," said Ribsam. "When I left there were 6,360, despite the opioid crisis and Superstorm Sandy. In 10 years we became one of the best child welfare systems in the country. The path is not easy; it's not inexpensive and it takes time. But when we produced a system to get the outcomes we wanted, we got the outcomes we wanted."

The key to reducing child injuries and fatalities is the ability for the state to intervene and get services to families before children get injured, not after.

In a state where child protective laws were heavily tilted toward parental rights, the budget for social workers was constrained, and funding for voluntary services was nonexistent, that's been a challenge, he said.

The Legislature changed the Child Protection Act last year to put child welfare and safety ahead of parental rights and family reunification. It also added funding for new positions in DCYF, while Sununu made wholesale changes in leadership at the agency.

Taking next steps

The hope among many in the child welfare system, including the state's newly appointed child advocate, is that lawmakers will now take the next step to fund voluntary services for families at risk, but that are not guilty of child abuse.

"Overwhelmingly, the kids who die as a result of abuse and neglect are known to the child protective system," said Ribsam. "So if you want to help those kids, you have to help them before they get into the child protective system."

An outside investigation of DCYF that led to many of the changes was ordered by then Gov. Maggie Hassan in 2015, after the deaths of 3-year-old Brielle Gage of Nashua and 21-month-old Sadie Willott of Manchester, both of whom died while their neglect and abuse cases were under DCYF review.

Before the outside review began, the head of DCYF at the time presided over the arbitrary closure of nearly 1,000 active cases.

New leadership at the top

To address the crisis, the Legislature authorized a new associate commissioner position to focus on child protection and behavioral health, and Christine Tappan was hired for the job. A new deputy commissioner, Thomas Pristow, and Ribsam were hired soon after.

Tappan said there is much work to do at the agency, but for now they are focused aggressively on child fatalities. "As much as we want to change the entire system, we want to eliminate child fatalities in New Hampshire and we want to dig into that very deeply," she said. "Kids from birth to age 3 are the most vulnerable."

Last year's appropriation to hire 20 new social workers has helped. Caseloads have dropped from about 90 per social worker in 2016 to about 40 as of January, but that's still way above recommended ratios.

In New Jersey, the case-load now averages about 12 families per caseworker.

"We are still a long way from that type of time and space for social workers to really engage families," said Ribsam.

Three key bills

The three bills up for a vote this week (SB582, SB590 and SB592) restore voluntary services for families at risk and community-based prevention programs in DCYF, along with additional social workers and a foster care rate increase.

"We have to focus on foster care as a support for families, not the fix," said Tappan. "We have to focus in on the foster care experience so we don't continue to lose foster parents."

There are some encouraging trends. Open assessments are below 2,000 for the first time in a long time, but not by much, at 1,960.

"For the first time in more than a year, we have more kids exiting foster care than coming into care, so that's a good sign," said Ribsam. "We only had two more exits than entries, but that's the first time we've seen that in three years."

The key, according to Sununu, is to keep the momentum going.

"These are three of the most important bills to address child welfare in the state that we've seen in a long, long time," he said.

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