Concord — More than two years have passed since 3-year-old Brielle Gage was beaten to death while under state watch. The news sparked calls at the Statehouse to reform the child protection division, but the agency is now without a permanent director, and substantial change has yet to take hold.
“There seems to be an overall lack of urgency,” said John DeJoie, who has sat on a state commission that reviews child fatalities. “I still have the same concern for kids I had two years ago.”
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu came into office in January and named agency reform a priority, but many of his plans are still works in progress.
While some department reforms have begun, such as 24/7 coverage at the agency, others are still being implemented.
A nationwide search is underway for a new head of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, though it’s not clear when a permanent leader will be selected. After an outside review of DCYF revealed the agency was severely short-staffed, the Department of Health and Human Services added 22 new child protection positions last November. But, so far, only 11 have been filled, according to the department.
The budget under consideration in the state Senate includes an additional $4.4 million to hire more staff, though the spending document, if passed, won’t take effect until July.
“These are some initial steps in the process,” Sununu said. “We want the kids and the cases that need attention getting attention, and getting the follow-through they need. We are going to rebuild and design a system that meets the needs to get those outcomes.”
Many say the agency needs a permanent director before internal reform can take place. DCYF’s former leader Lorraine Bartlett announced this winter she planned to retire at the start of April.
But roughly two weeks before her departure, Sununu put Bartlett on administrative leave following a Monitor report that the agency suspended protocols to close more than 1,500 open abuse and neglect investigations over two days in 2016.
Sununu said he plans to bring in an outside consultant to provide oversight at DCYF and is interviewing candidates for a new associate commissioner position to help oversee the agency. If the department can’t find a qualified DCYF director right away, Sununu said he may put in place a six-month interim leader.
“We are going to bring in the best and brightest to address management issues,” he said.
DHHS is planning to give child protection workers up to four hours paid overtime per week to help shrink the current backlog of roughly 2,800 open investigations, though if the plan doesn’t work, the department may seek outside help, according to DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers.
While the Legislature last session passed a number of changes, this year lawmakers have been slower to act.
A special legislative committee formed to respond to the outside review began meeting only within the last few weeks, leaving questions about how much the group can accomplish before June deadlines. New Hampshire substantiates roughly 5 percent of abuse and neglect reports — the lowest rate in the country and far behind the national average of 19 percent, federal data shows.
One proposal under committee consideration would let the state set up a third level for abuses that don’t meet the threshold to take to court, but are still worrisome. A proposal from Republican Sen. Sharon Carson would establish an office of the child advocate to provide independent oversight of DCYF. Republican leaders in the Legislature say changes will be included in the budget.
“Before we’re done with the session, we will see significant DCYF reform,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.
Workers said some positive progress has been made. Inside DCYF, staff morale is on the rise after Meyers met with child protection workers to hear their concerns and suggestions, according to child protection worker Demetrios Tsaros.
“I have worked for HHS for almost 20 years, and I can’t remember a commissioner sitting down with line staff,” Tsaros said. “It has been huge, if anything it has helped to improve morale.”
After months of delay, a plan to provide around-the-clock phone coverage at DCYF is in place and starting to have an effect. The call center, under contract with the state to field reports of abuse and neglect after hours, screened in 367 calls over one month — roughly 20 percent of the reports made to the agency.
“We have had some good success, but this is not a problem that is going to be solved overnight,” said Sununu, who also took aim at former governor Maggie Hassan. “Unlike previous administrations, we are not going to look the other way.”
Hassan called for the independent review of DCYF in 2015, soon after Manchester police Chief Nick Willard said publicly that DCYF failed to protect 21-month-old Sadee Willott, who was killed by her mother in the city.
Hassan’s administration came under criticism, however, when the report didn’t include a review of the state’s involvement with Willott and Gage. Hassan’s office said at the time it wasn’t possible while the criminal cases were ongoing.
In response to questions about whether requesting the review did enough to address the problems at DCYF, a spokeswoman for the now-U.S. senator pointed to a handful of measures she signed into law as governor. The measures were crafted by the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities and included making it easier for child protection workers to act on evidence that a parent is abusing opioids.
“Senator Hassan strongly believes that protecting our children and ensuring that every child has the opportunity to live and grow in a safe environment is the fundamental responsibility of our society,” Hassan representative Meira Bernstein said in a statement. “The independent review of DCYF was only a first step toward reforming the department, and Senator Hassan is encouraged by legislative efforts to institute additional reforms moving forward.”
Advocates say the time for action is now.
“It takes time to repair a system that is this horribly broken,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, a member of the Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities. “But abused and neglected kids don’t have time to wait for us to fix it.”