Former DHHS worker appeals case against state to Supreme Court

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A former Department of Health and Human Services employee alleging the state is failing to do its job to protect children in its care against abuse and neglect is taking her case to the NH Supreme Court.

Anna Carrigan of Farmington is appealing to the high court after her initial suit against the state was dismissed last year. Carrigan argues she’s able to bring the suit under a provision in the NH Constitution–Article1 Section 8– that allows citizens to hold the state accountable for poor or illegal spending. Carrigan, who was a Health Promotion Advisor within the Asthma Control Program at DHHS from October 2017 to May 2019, is accusing the state of failing to meet its legal obligation to properly care for abused and neglected children due to routine underfunding and understaffing. 

The attorney for the state is Samuel Garland – however, Kate Giaquinto, Director of Communications at the Attorney General’s office elected not to comment on the case as they do not speak about active litigation.

Carrigan said her first exposure to issues within DHHS began when she looked into the case of a young relative. She alleges that caseworkers and their superiors at the Division for Children, Youth and Families – which is part of DHHS– failed to stay “in appropriate contact” with her relative and made it unnecessarily difficult to get an emergency order of protection.

Carrigan said after she took her concerns public, many other families reached out to her with their own stories.

Carrigan first spoke out against irregularities while employed at DHHS, which she said resulted in poor treatment by her employers. NHPR reported last year that Carrigan reached a settlement with DHHS “over allegations that she was retaliated against for publicly criticizing the state’s child protective services.” As part of the agreement, Carrigan can no longer seek employment or work for the state of New Hampshire.

Carrigan filed her initial claim against the state last year but the case was dismissed on the grounds that Carrigan lacked evidence to support her claims. DHHS said in an email that the case was “correctly dismissed,” for “failing to state valid claims against the DCYF.”

The state argued at the time that the evidence Carrigan presented was not strong enough to incriminate DHHS and that her application of the statute doesn’t apply in this scenario, thus the case was invalid as a whole.

The judge ruled in his denial that the grounds of Article 1, Section 8 would not work in this case, citing that it only applies when the State or a political subdivision “has spent, (or has approved to spend) funds in the violation of a law.” 

Carrigan claims the state’s lack of spending and staffing is the “illegal government spending,” that the statute requires, and that the “spending allocations, generally,” cause the state’s failures to protect children. 

Her lawsuit also alleges that the state has failed to hire and properly train staff to sufficiently respond to reports of child abuse and neglect and doesn’t pay employees enough. She argues these factors prove the state couldn’t possibly meet its legal obligation to respond to these cases adequately – resulting in the “violation of a law,” required for Article 1, Section 8 to be correctly applied in this lawsuit. The violation, in this case, is DHHS breaking the statewide obligation to report and respond to cases of child abuse and neglect.

In response to the case, both DHHS and Gov. Chris Sununu argued the state has made improvements to DCYF.

“Within the last few years, DCYF has initiated a focused response to what was a significant growth in caseloads assigned to individual caseworkers. Through the reduction of open cases, each caseworker’s caseload is in the teens,” according to Kathy Remillard of DHHS Bureau of Communications.

Sununu said in a statement to Granite State News Collaborative “Investment in vulnerable populations can pay dividends when done right. In 2017 we began rebuilding a broken child care system. It was a mess. But new management and new programs have yielded terrific results.” According to his office, DCYF has added 99 additional Child Protective Services workers and 20 additional supervisors since 2017, and cut zero filled positions.

Sununu continued in his statement: “Our investment in child protection workers has dropped the overwhelming caseload of 90 per worker. Across the board we are making progress and this budget keeps those successes moving forward.” The average caseload per Child Protective Service workers now is 17, according to Sununu’s office.  The new proposed budget would reportedly scale back half of DCYF’s unoccupied positions, as a result of the reduced caseload per worker in comparison to the high of 90 in 2017. 

The state had until March 30 to file its response to Carrigan’s appeal.

We’ll update this story as soon as more information is available.

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