Over the course of past decades, many people have fought for systemic changes that would substantially improve or overhaul the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families. I have never seen the agency so thoroughly scrutinized as it is today.
The overhaul and examination haven’t come a moment too soon.
The agency’s turmoil is seemingly never-ending. Harvard Kennedy School professor Jeffrey Liebman called it the “most messed up agency ever” (“Auditors find history of chaos at R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families,” Providence Journal, July 30, 2015).
A short look at the past decade shows that the problems plaguing DCYF are endemic. The Journal headlines remain unchanged.
An August 2007 headline reads: “Panel hears DCYF horror stories: As the agency’s director looks on, witnesses present a long list of deficiencies.”
A November 2004 headline: “Child’s death prompts review of DCYF actions”
Last month: “Warnings failed to save four babies.”
There has been a pattern over the past two decades of media coverage and legislative inquiry followed by abrupt radio silence.
House and Senate leadership seem to be breaking that trend.
Over the past 15 years, I have worked with four DCYF directors and spent hours in General Assembly committee hearings. I had a marathon strategy session last year with Lt. Gov. Dan McKee. I have met with dozens of hardworking front-line staff, and listened to countless parents, experts, and advocates, all of whom echo the same refrain: the system is beyond repair.
At a hearing before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith indicated that the majority of calls she receives are from DCYF employees asking for help or seeking investigations, a fact she described as “telling.” If the front line staff aren’t equipped with the tools and resources to tailor services to the children under their supervision, why not? It’s within the purview of the department and its employees to be the first line of defense and preventative measures — not the Office of the Child Advocate.
The legislative intent upon creating OCA was to protect the rights of children in state care, not micromanage overburdened and underpaid DCYF social workers. Social workers, if treated fairly and given an appropriate array of services and educational opportunities to provide to their clients, would not need OCA to check what should be routine departmental work.
DCYF social workers are beyond capable of providing first-class care to the youth they serve — if DCYF administration reduces caseloads and strengthens licensing and auditing processes. To allow the high case rate and lax licensing standards to remain in place is to condone longstanding abuse and negligence.
Problems plaguing DCYF have ranged from high social worker burnout rates to antiquated case management software. The 47 workers to be hired by May 31 certainly provides a boost, but not as much as necessary (and what is to say they will not be burned out if the number of cases reaches new highs?). Investing in our social workers is an absolute necessity. Disallowing reasonable case assignment ratios at the expense of budget cuts is tantamount to inviting in the wolf at the door.
DCYF also needs to audit the expenditures for unnecessary or redundant services. As House Oversight Chairwoman Patricia Serpa so memorably put it, “we’re saving money but we’re losing babies.” We should encourage solutions conducive to child safety and financially prudent service delivery.
Furthermore, we should respect the collective intellect of our legislators. Resolutions to create a special House Oversight Committee on DCYF have been introduced, always being held for further study. Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, reintroduced the resolution in 2017 only for it to be tabled last month. We grossly underestimate this great brain trust.
Social workers deserve the resources and tools necessary to ensure that the state’s most vulnerable population is afforded a fair shot at life, being cared for in a safe environment where they are provided with education, health care and the basic necessities of life.
Is that too much to ask?
Nicholas Alahverdian (email@example.com) is a lobbyist and managing partner at Rhode Island Government Solutions.