CONCORD, NH – The Office of the Child Advocate released its 2019 Annual Report Feb. 14. It is the second annual report for the office established to oversee the Division for Children Youth and Families (DCYF) and assure the best interests of children are protected.
The report marks a “generous and optimistic year in New Hampshire policy affecting children” according to the OCA, and documents the case and system review of the Office.
A call for more communication and collaboration by NH’s Child Advocate Moira O’Neill in the report’s recommendations was met with a response by DHHS Director Lori Shibinette that the OCA needs “to acknowledge its responsibilities in this area by implementing those recommendations and taking a more collaborative approach to its work.”
Below is a summary statement issued with the report by O’Neill followed by responses issued from Shibinette and DCYF Director Joe Ribsam.
In 2019 the Office undertook broad system reviews examining the State’s response to children with incarcerated parents, infants born substance-exposed, and the use and reporting of restraint and seclusion in residential facilities. The Office also launched a unique System Learning Review (SLR) process grounded in safety science to examine critical incidents and deaths involving children known to DCYF. DCYF frontline staff and administrators collaborated with the Office in the SLR to ensure authentic representation of the daily pressures encountered in child protection and juvenile justice. In addition to system reviews the Office received, reviewed, and responded to over 1,000 calls of concern and reports of incidents involving children involved with DCFY.
Moira O’Neill, Director of the Office, stated:
“Similar key findings emerged in all of our work: the importance of open communications and relationships across all domains of children’s services, and the essential need for establishing interprofessional relationships. Community-building is key to achieving the best outcomes for children. We must also acknowledge the barriers of personal and systemic bias that prevent children and families from being healthy and successful.” Overarching all of these findings is the necessity of understanding child development and the need for continuing expansion and stabilization of New Hampshire’s array of services for children and families.”
Senate Bills 6 and 14, passed in 2019, support the expansion of the DCYF workforce and expansion of a comprehensive community-based system of care for children. O’Neill applauded these accomplishments but urged mindfulness of more work needed. “Until all positions are filled and stabilized, caseworkers struggle with caseloads significantly higher than recommended. Even with enough caseworkers, children and families will continue to struggle if we do not have the right resources matched to clearly identified needs. There is great momentum forward for children in New Hampshire, we must maintain that movement.”
The OCA looks to this upcoming year as an opportunity to better understand and elevate the voices of New Hampshire’s children.
“Children know what they need, and are often their own best advocate. We just need to listen to them,” O’Neill stated.
Pursuant to NH RSA 170-G:18, the Office of the Child Advocate provides independent oversight of the Department for Children, Youth and Families to assure that the best interests of children are being protected. O’Neill was appointed the first director of the new office in January 2018.
Below is a statement issued by DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette and Joe Ribsam, Director of the Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), in response to the above report:
Statement of Joe Ribsam, DCYF Director:
“DCYF appreciates the time and attention the OCA invested to prepare such a comprehensive report. While DCYF and the OCA may not always perfectly agree on issues of policy, priority, or messaging, we appreciate the OCA’s support for the broader child welfare system transformation efforts. Most of those recent efforts have focused on aligning and collaborating with stakeholders toward our common goal of strengthening families and keep children safe and well. Much of the OCA’s report demonstrates how critical it is for all child welfare stakeholders to work together to realize our collective vision for New Hampshire’s system of child wellbeing and family strengthening.
“In the two years since the OCA was established, much of the work at DCYF has been focused on diagnosing system challenges and working with stakeholders and policymakers so we can overcome those challenges. Due to the commitment of Governor Chris Sununu and the State Legislature, the current State budget has positioned DCYF and the broader child and family serving system to make the fundamental system improvements to the benefit of New Hampshire’s children, youth, and families. Among the highlights in 2019, more children and youth exited the child protection system than entered it, a significant development and an early indicator of a healthy system. As a result of DCYF’s efforts to keep kids safe in their homes, fewer children are entering into out-of-home care and more families receiving the help they need while remaining intact.
“DCYF also continues to aggressively recruit for and fill open positions, including holding monthly ‘Job Fests’ that lead to about 25 interviews and 10 new hires each month. The Job Fest interviewing and onboarding process has led to 66 newly-hired CPSWs since June, exceeding the 63 CPSWs hired the preceding year. As we have recruited additional DCYF team members, we have seen a positive impact on overall caseloads.
“Now, as we embark into the complex and extensive work of implementing scores of improvements across our child and family systems, DCYF is hopeful that the collaborative support of the Governor, the legislature, the OCA, and our stakeholders can continue to propel us toward a brighter future for New Hampshire’s children, youth, and families.”
Statement of DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette:
“I appreciate the OCA’s efforts to develop this report, which highlights their efforts to help families in New Hampshire. During my time at DHHS, I have seen firsthand how dedicated the staff, supervisors and administrators of DCYF are to collaborating with the OCA and other stakeholders that serve children, youth and families. So it is disappointing that the OCA’s annual report fails to acknowledge the important accomplishments of DCYF in the past year, including:
- For the first time since 2015, more children are exiting from out of home care than entering.
- Removed the barriers to recruitment by creating a streamlined hiring process. The DCYF “Job Fest” has resulted in a 42% increase in hiring as compared to the same period last year.
- CPSWs averaged a caseload of 38 assessments in January 2020, down from an average caseload of 93 assessments in January 2016.
- Partnered with the Bureau of Housing Stability to secure 65 new Family Unification Program housing vouchers to support families who are at risk of having children enter out of home care due to housing instability and for youth transitioning out of DCYF care.
- Implemented a brand new internal voluntary service option to work with families before a finding of child abuse and neglect, serving more than 417 children and families in the last state fiscal year and 382 children and families so far this year.
“When it comes to what we all want – transforming the child welfare system – collaboration is key. All stakeholders must effectively work together if we are to realize our shared vision. The OCA’s annual report is filled with recommendations that DCYF and other stakeholders be more collaborative and communicate more effectively. I strongly encourage the OCA to acknowledge its responsibilities in this area by implementing those recommendations and taking a more collaborative approach to its work.”
The 48-page report is below. The Child Advocate’s recommendations appear on page 45: