DCYF caseworkers determine abuse or neglect based on NH law – and it’s complicated

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Hands of Hope wall at the Nashua Child Advocacy Center, part of the statewide Granite State Children’s Alliance network. The handprints on the wall are placed there by children who have been victims of abuse when they visit the center for law enforcement or child services interviews, counseling and other services. File Photo/Carol Robidoux

CONCORD, NH –  Each year, the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) investigates between 10,000 and 12,000 cases of suspected child abuse and neglect yet the public only hears about a few of those cases, when things go awry and a child goes missing, is seriously injured or killed.

Joseph E. Ribsam, DCYF director, because of confidentiality laws, is prohibited from talking about specific cases – including the case of Harmony Montgomery, 7, who has been missing since at least November 2019.

He did say, however, that whenever there is a critical incident – a child fatality, serious injury to a child, a child is abducted or missing, a suicide – it triggers a Quality Assurance Review.  That involves DCYF, along with the Office of the Child Advocate and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, looking at the case to see what went well and what didn’t. 

They review what was done appropriately and see what they can learn from mistakes “if mistakes happened in the first place.”  

He said that review is underway in the case of Harmony.

Ribsam, in a lengthy telephone interview, outlined the process involved in a case, from the time someone calls the Child Protection Hotline – 1-800-852-3345 – to when a child is taken out of the home; when a parent is reunified with the child, or the child is placed up for adoption.

Presently, he said, there are 137 assessment workers (caseworkers) with 19 still in training, assigned to investigate those cases of suspected abuse and neglect. 

The department has 161 positions to fill, nearly double the 82 it had in 2017, meaning there are 24 vacancies.  In addition, there are another 109 family service workers, 18 of whom are in training, who take over the cases when they move on to the courts. There are 122 family service workers positions, meaning 13 are vacant.  In 2017, there were only 82 positions.

Above: NH DCYF Monthly Data Dashboard for Dec. 2021

Ribsam said when he took the job four years ago, a caseworker averaged more than 50 cases.  “That’s absolutely impossible when you think of all the work that goes into that,” he said. Working with the Legislature, DCYF was able to obtain more funding and staff resulting in a caseworker now assigned about 19 cases.  Ribsam said that still is higher than the ideal of 12 per worker. 

During the pandemic, he said DCYF did lose some staff, some who decided the work wasn’t for them and others who left because they could earn more than what the state was paying.

“We still have a number of positions to fill,” he said.  “The biggest challenge was salaries weren’t competitive.” Last November, DCYF upped case workers’ pay by 15 percent.  “We’re starting to see a little more stability there,” he said of the staffing.

He said DCYF’s charge is to investigate cases of abuse and neglect and to work with families and children involved in such instances.  Ideally, he said, the investigation of a case is completed in 60 days but sometimes a case can be so complex that it takes much longer.

Risam said DCYF works within a very strict statutory framework. Someone may call to say a family doesn’t have enough food for the children.  That, he said, is not abuse or neglect.  However, a phone number of the local resource center or food bank would be provided so the family can get the help it needs.

“The definition of neglect explicitly excludes things that are caused by the lack of financial means; it excludes poverty,” Ribsam said.

Yet, oftentimes, what people report is the result of poverty. 

Joseph E. Ribsam, DCYF director

“I think that’s where a lot of people get confused,” he said.  “They see a family struggling, even a homeless family but that is not neglect under the law.  It’s not how the law works.”

In those cases, DCYF will connect the family to homeless services and/or other social services.

A family intentionally depriving a child or children falls into a category of neglect and abuse.  

Ribsam said many times there is more to that initial call about a family lacking food.  It could be the caller is reporting the kids are dirty and unkempt; the house is a disaster and looks like a dangerous place; there’s allegations of drug abuse by the parent or parents.  “That’s a totally different situation and would be screened for abuse and neglect,” he said.

Caseworkers must determine abuse or neglect based on the law, which Ribsam said is often a complicated question.

“Corporal punishment is not illegal in this state,” he said.  Spanking or paddling a child is allowed.  

“A parent does have the legal right to use corporal punishment and while the statute talks about deliberate abuse causing injury to a child, beyond that, courts have to determine how much injury, how much harm.  It’s not just showing the child has a minor injury or a bruise.  You have to show a child has a serious injury,” he said. “So, where people may think it’s a clear-cut case, it really is complicated from a legal standpoint.”

A child with a bruised arm is not necessarily going to trigger a DCYF investigation.  Kids get bruises all the time from roughhousing with friends and siblings, playing and jumping around and falling, etc. 

The caseworker has to determine how the child got injured, what were the circumstances surrounding the injury and if it is severe enough for the court to say it crosses the threshold into abuse and not lawful corporal punishment.

The caseworker makes the initial decision whether the allegation of abuse or neglect is founded but then, Ribsam said, it must be proven in court.

“That obviously is a lot harder burden than somebody thinking it is abuse and neglect,” Ribsam said.  “You have to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the child was injured intentionally, and it is abusive and not lawful corporal punishment.”

To reach that decision, a caseworker will talk to the kids, neighbors, parents, physicians and teachers to find out what actually happened.  At that point, if it still is not clear, the police could become involved or a forensic interview may be conducted of the child at a child advocacy center to try and obtain more information in a sensitive way.  “It takes time,” Ribsam said.

DCYF, he said, recently entered a contract with the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth to provide a child abuse expert to do assessments.

“A simple case requires talking to a lot of people,” he said.  “A complex case is bringing in all kinds of experts.”

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Above: Some highlighted slides from the DCYF Data Dashboard for Dec. 2021. Slide 1. Reports to Central Intake. Slide 2: Allegation Types in Referrals; Slide 3: Child Protection Workforce Capacity – Assessment; Slide 4: Child Protection – Open Family Services Cases.
Once a caseworker has identified abuse or neglect, then they have to decide whether they can work with the family and keep the child safe or they have to remove the child.

“When you remove a child, you are always going to cause trauma.  Kids love their parents even if their parents aren’t fit,” Ribsam said.

The choice is do they remove the child, knowing they are going to cause trauma, or leave them in the home realizing there are safety issues. 

“It’s a really hard decision.  That’s why we want to make sure there are resources in place to keep kids in their home and resources to keep them safe.  But sometimes that is not an option and sometimes you have to remove kids.  And that, too, has to go before the court,” Ribsam said.

At that point, DCYF files an ex parte pleading, that is without notifying the parent, to obtain immediate custody.  Within a couple of days, they must go to court to prove the child is in imminent danger of harm if they stay in the home.  “It’s a pretty heavy standard in court,” Ribsam said.

There must be evidence a child is in danger.  “It is not as simple as we believe the kid is better off with another family.  We have to be able to prove this kid has been abused and neglected, which is not an easy thing, and prove that they will suffer harm by staying in their own home.”  

Currently, NH DCYF has about 950 children under their protection with another 200 in the criminal justice system.  The 950 under state supervision are living with grandparents, aunts or uncles, in foster homes or group homes.  Ribsam said DCYF always tries to place a child with a family member when possible because it is less traumatizing than going to a stranger’s home.

The court process continues while the child is under state protection.  The goal is to reunify the child with a parent, who may be ordered to get counseling, take parenting classes, go to rehab, get tested weekly for drugs, etc., within 12 months.  If that process fails within that time frame, the child is then eligible for adoption.

Ribsam said before a child is reunified with a parent (that is the parent is given back custody of the child) the parent’s background, including criminal history, is reviewed by the court.

“It’s typically a very thorough process,” he said.

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Child Protection Hotline at 1-800-852-3345.  It is staffed 24/7 with caseworkers available to go out on emergency calls.

Other Resources: 

      • Know and Tell – If a child tells you that he or she has been hurt or you are concerned that a child may be the victim of any type of abuse or neglect, you are required to call the Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) Central Intake Unit at (800) 894-5533. Contact your local police department with urgent child abuse or neglect reports. Proof of abuse and neglect is not required to make a report and you may report confidentially.
  • New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force
  • Resources for Grandparents caring for Grandchildren
  • Waypoint Family Support Warm Line is not an emergency “hotline” but rather a free phone-in service created in partnership with NH Department of Health and Human Services. Callers can speak confidentially with a family support professional to get help with a variety of challenges. The service was established in April of 2020 in response to the increased challenges families were facing due to COVID-19. The number to call is 1-800-640-6486 and someone will get back to you within 24 business hours. The Waypoint Warmline can accommodate just about any language spoken in New Hampshire.


About this Author


Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.