That’s the situation at the Division of Children, Youth and Families, according to Director Lorraine Bartlett, who testified Monday at the monthly meeting of the Legislative Commission on Child Abuse Fatalities.
The commission was formed by vote of the Legislature last year after two high-profile homicides in 2014 and 2015 involving children under DCYF supervision.
Seven of 12 district DCYF offices had turnover in the 50-percent range or higher in key social worker positions from 2013 to 2015, according to Bartlett, who presented on DCYF turnover and recruitment at the request of the commission.
Overall, 48 percent percent of child protective service positions turned over in the two-year period. “The workforce overall is constantly shifting,” said Bartlett.
She said it can take three months or more to fill a position, and three months of training and supervision after that before a social worker can act independently to keep up with caseloads.
Meanwhile, the incoming calls are increasing at a dramatic rate, attributable in part to the opioid crisis that has created hundreds of new addicts who are also parents.
“The intensity of work for the assessment staff has been increasing on an ongoing basis,” said Bartlett. “Relative to the number of assessments, just in March of 2016, we’ve gone from 841 reports that went to district offices in February to 1,065 in March.”
She said the standard in the profession is 10 to 12 new reports per month, while social workers in New Hampshire on average are taking on 17 new cases each month.
The statistics alarmed commission members, who, although generally aware of the staffing problems, were shocked by the details.
“This looks like a situation waiting to happen,” said State Rep. Joseph Guthrie of Hampstead. “My view from what I know up to now is that we’re going to do something to correct this or we are going to have another fatality, and I don’t think you have control over whether there is going to be one. I think you need some help. It’s a shame that people have to work under these circumstances.”
Commission member John DeJoie, representing the non-profit NH Kids Count organization, urged DHHS to press for additional resources immediately, and not wait for the next budget cycle as has been proposed.
“This is truly a crisis,” he said. “I don’t know if waiting for the next budget is going to address the issue. I hope the director has spoken to fiscal (the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee) about the ability to transfer some funding.”
Commission member Borja Alvarez de Toledo of N.H. Child & Family Services urged the agency to be more aggressive in sharing information with the public, to build support the funding measures that are likely to be forthcoming. Child and Family Services is a private non-profit that works to advance the well-being of children and families.
“I’m worried that this is going to get worse,” he said. “The numbers are showing an increase in assessments. We have a drug epidemic with heroin, and you are getting more cases. The numbers are compelling, so I would encourage you to make those public as often as you can, so the whole state can have the awareness that this committee has.”
The commission also heard a presentation by Gail Garinger, former Child Advocate for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A subcommittee under the leadership of DeJoie has recommended a similar position for New Hampshire.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Ann Dempsey, who serves as counsel to Gov. Maggie Hassan, updated the commission on the independent review of DCYF that will soon be under way by the Maryland-based Center for the Support of Families.
Commission Chair Sen. David Boutin expressed frustration that the commission had still not received assurances that the two fatalities from 2014 and 2015 would be included in the 100 randomly selected cases to be reviewed by the center.
“With all due respect, senator, we do have some assurances,” said Dempsey. “The random sampling is only one component. But I truly believe that that through seeking input from advocates, doctors, police and educators, that these child fatalities will definitely be a component of this review … I don’t anticipate any holes in the report.”