Scathing report calls for overhaul of RI’s child welfare services

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A report released Thursday by the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) suggests the state of Rhode Island is not doing enough to protect at-risk children.

Upon analyzing the cases of four recent child fatalities and two near fatalities, the agency highlighted the need for drastic reform at the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

The report called upon the state to thoroughly review the DCYF’s practices and policies to make sure they’re better aligned with national standards.

DCYF’s director, Dr. Trista Piccola, said she’s looking over the findings and intends to meet with the OCA to address the concerns that were raised.

PDF: Click here to read the full report »

The cases that were reviewed involved children 2 to 18 months old, according to the report, and each family had prior contact with the DCYF and its Child Protective Services division.

The report stated CPS acts as a “gatekeeper” of sorts by reviewing each case that comes in and determining what action should be taken. The OCA found the system is not functioning properly, leaving children at risk.

Problems with Review Process

One of the report’s recommendations was for the DCYF to develop a better system for reviewing child abuse and neglect reports. The investigation found the agency lacks standardized intake and risk assessment processes.

The report claimed it was evident that each call to the DCYF’s child welfare hotline was treated as a unique call – without factoring in case history – and whether or not it should be investigated seemed to be up to the individual CPS employee. The panel called this “extremely alarming”  and said it led to inconsistent results.

Cases received by the CPS that aren’t deemed worthy of an investigation are classified as an information/referral, or I/R. According to the report, 4,340 cases were classified as such between April 7 and Nov. 30 of last year. OCA investigators reviewed nearly half of those cases and found 486 – just under a quarter – met the criteria for requiring an investigation. Of those 486, the report stated 46 percent involved a child under 6 years of age.

In the cases of children under 6, the report suggested that an investigator be required to respond to the home and put eyes on the child to better assess their situation.

The report also said a child’s death should never be classified as an I/R, which happened in one of the reviewed cases.

Staffing Issues

Another inadequacy presented by the report was with the DCYF’s staffing, which it said has resulted in employees carrying overbearing caseloads. For example, 11 CPS investigators were found to be handling more than 20 cases per month during the review period, which is twice the federal recommendation of 8 to 10 per month.

In addition, as of Feb. 28, the report said the agency had 397 active investigations, 298 of which were pending for more than 10 days, which is a violation of DCYF policy.

Another recommendation was for the DCYF to meet training standards. Child-welfare staffers must complete 20 hours of training per year, according to the OCA. The panel said it could not determine if this was being followed or not as the department’s records haven’t been updated since 2012.

Dr. Piccola released a statement Thursday saying the OCA’s findings are troubling and that she intends to work with the agency to improve the state’s child welfare system.

“DCYF’s highest priority is the safety of children in Rhode Island. I haven’t had the opportunity to review the report in its entirety yet, but I have reached out to the Child Advocate to set up a meeting to discuss her findings at length. I am taking the panel’s findings, some of which I find troubling, and recommendations very seriously as I know we all share the same interests in building a better child welfare system for our state. Since I started at DCYF last month, I have taken steps to address some of these concerns—filling vacancies in our frontline staff, starting a thorough analysis of how families enter our system, and finding ways to better support our workforce. I look forward to working together with the Child Advocate and agency staff, to build on the initial progress made by reform efforts at the Department and to continue to focus on improving outcomes for Rhode Island’s children and families.”

Anya Rader Wallach, acting secretary of the state’s office of Health and Human Services, also released a statement ensuring the report will be taken into careful consideration.

“Having a strong, independent, engaged Child Advocate provides added accountability to DCYF’s reform efforts. I appreciate the work that the Child Advocate and her panel members put into this report. I know that Director Piccola and her team will take these findings into serious consideration.”