Delivery of Care

When kids do not count

Anger flares during hearing by House Committee on Oversight as legislators seek answers about alleged missteps under former DCYF acting director Jamia McDonald

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jennifer Griffith, R.I. Child Advocate, front, and Trista Piccola, the new director at DCYF, testify before the House Committee on Oversight on May 10.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/15/17
The most recent House Committee on Oversight looking into problems at DCYF touched some sensitive nerve endings for legislators, who expressed anger over the previous director’s performance, which in turn reinforced continuing ire over UHIP. In the future, do not be surprised if the Committee seeks subpoena power.
Will Gov. Gina Raimondo’s management style come under criticism in the upcoming 2018 election as a result of turmoil of her team’s management of UHIP and DCYF? Will efforts to better understand and diagnose toxic stress become part of the protocols for DCYF workers investigating child abuse? How do the diseases of despair, which researchers have found may be linked to economic stress, play out in children being harmed? What is the connection to domestic violence and sexual abuse experienced by parents when they were children and the perpetuation of a cycle of violence?
Childcare remains one of the biggest problems for young parents navigating the demands of the workplace and parenting. Given the current economic reality, which often requires both parents to be working full-time jobs, finding a safe, affordable and nurturing daycare situation is a constant worry for most working parents. In many cases, family members – aunts, uncles and grandparents – step in to fill the breech. While experts agree on the importance of early childhood nurturing from infancy to age 2, the resources to support that are often missing from state budget allocations – in what daycare providers are paid, in the number of daycare slots open to low-income residents, in the kinds of enrichment programs for both parents and children available.

PROVIDENCE – Surprisingly, there were no TV cameras or reporters, save for ConvergenceRI, when the House Committee on Oversight met on May 10 to hear reports from Jennifer Griffith, the R.I. Child Advocate, and from Dr. Trista Piccola, the new director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families, giving status updates on efforts to right the ship at the troubled agency.

Piccola had replaced former DCYF acting director Jamia McDonald, who left the agency to take a job in the private sector with Deloitte, some two years after being appointed by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

One of the first tasks undertaken by Piccola was the hiring of some 65 frontline workers, positions that had been inexplicably left unfilled under McDonald’s watch.

As of May 8, 50 of the 65 frontline workers have been hired, and the remaining 15 positions were all in various stages of the hiring process, according to Piccola.

Under questioning by legislators, Piccola said that 47 of the 50 hires completed were new to the agency.

In addition, Piccola reported that Stephanie Terry had been hired as the assistant director of Child Protective Services, starting in her new position as of May 8. [For those who have been following the UHIP train wreck, Terry was one of the employees cited by advocates as having been most helpful in trying to resolve problems and snafus created by the botched launch of the new Deloitte software system in September of 2016.]

Piccola also told legislators that, at her direction, the agency had undertaken the effort to map out the entire “front door” process, to better understand how families interact with DCYF, from the first phone call to the agency’s hotline.

At her direction, the agency is also revamping its information/referral policy and practice, to fully address the needs of families and children who were not receiving an investigation, Piccola said.

Many of the shortcomings at the agency now being addressed by Piccola had been identified in a recent report released in March by the Office of the Child Advocate.

Child fatalities and near fatalities
On March 23, Griffith had published a scathing report reviewing four child fatalities and two near fatalities who had been in the care and custody of DCYF or recent contact with the agency, starting in October of 2016.

The findings in Griffith’s report included:

The lack of a standardized intake process

Improper applications and overuse of the information/referral policy

Classification of a child death as information/referral

The need to address safe sleeping practices with parents, given that all four of the infant fatalities had occurred while the infant was in bed [co-sleeping] with one or more caretakers at the time of death. [DCYF is now working with the R.I. Department of Health to develop a safe sleeping initiative with Dr. Ailis Clyne.]

Inadequate staffing and a high rate of turnover

Concerns about high caseload numbers

Non-compliance with statutory mandates

The need to shift from an incident-based system to a risk-based system

Improved communications
One positive sign of changes at DCYF was the apparent improvement in rapport and communications between Griffith and Piccola, who said they are in regular communication.

Legislators pressed both Griffith and Piccola to explain why reports on infant deaths had previously languished on McDonald’s desk, without being sent to the Office of the Child Advocate. Both said that they were at a loss to explain why.

Rep. Patricia Serpa said that it looked like a deliberate withholding of information by McDonald. “We have dead babies and babies at risk,” Serpa said. “It’s disgusting that it happened,” she continued, that this information was not made available in a timely fashion to the Office of the Child Advocate. “Unforgiveable.”

Rep. Anastasia Williams also expressed her anger at DCYF, saying: “DCYF lies, kills and destroys.” [Williams, in her former role as chair of the John Hope Settlement House, had battled with DCYF over the agency’s effort to pull the license for the daycare operation at John Hope.]

Williams asked Piccola whether those individuals who had been involved with the child deaths had been reprimanded. Williams also asked if the agency had investigated charges of nepotism in terms of previous hires at the agency. Further, she asked if it were true, as she had heard, that employees in the administration and at DCYF had been “disdainful” of questions asked by members of the Committee on Oversight.

Rep. Lauren Carson asked about training of the new staff, given that the former Child Welfare Institute at Rhode Island College no longer exists.

Serpa also questioned Piccola about “disdain” by the administration over questions from the Committee on Oversight, ruminating about the potential need to seek subpoena power when investigating agencies, given the experience with UHIP.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch
On Friday, May 12, Raimondo announced the latest round of changes in her team overseeing health and human services. Eric Beane was chosen to be the new secretary at the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, replacing interim secretary Anya Rader Wallack, who will be returning to her previous position at Brown University.

Beane had been serving as the interim director of the R.I. Department of Human Services. Courtney Hawkins, policy director for the City of Providence, was named the new director at the Department of Human Services. Zack Sherman, executive director at HealthSourceRI, will become the point person for the Raimondo administration in overseeing attempts to rectify glitches with Deloitte’s software system with UHIP.

One further note on the musical chairs: Jennifer Wood, who had been demoted from her position as deputy director at R.I. EOHHS in the aftermath of the UHIP train wreck, left the agency to take a new job as executive director at the Rhode Island Center for Justice, located at Roger Williams University School of Law School, which provides legal assistance to low-income residents.

What remains to be seen is whether or not Raimondo is hurt politically by the problems that occurred under the watch of her initial management teams at DCYF and EOHHS.

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