It's not just financial irregularities plaguing the child welfare agency. There are lists of reforms officials must tackle - including 20 specific recommendations from a group of lawmakers.
When the state’s child welfare agency told the General Assembly it would need another cash infusion to make it through the end of the year, a group of lawmakers decided to dig in to the root cause of the agency’s financial problems.
What they found was a history of mismanagement, layers of dysfunction, overworked staff, and children and families bearing the brunt of an agency in constant crisis.
More reports followed – from former Governor Lincoln Chafee’s resource team, from the child welfare experts at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. All painted the picture of a system badly in need of reform. IT wasn’t the first time in the agency’s history that outside experts had peered in and deemed the situation unsatisfactory.
New leadership, new oversight
But this time, a new governor installed new leadership and empowered them to get outside help, reorganize, and investigate. She ordered a complete overhaul, and that is underway.
Meanwhile, a senate committee is also keeping its finger on the pulse of the agency, holding quarterly oversight meetings to ask for an update on progress implementing 20 recommendations. Among those recommendations: reduce the number of children placed in group homes, both in and out of state; recruit more foster families who can take children who might otherwise be in group homes; reduce social worker case loads; and improve the number of children who receive physical and emotional assessments in the first 30 days of entering the state's care.
From the most recent meeting this week, some highlights of progress made, and progress still needed:
- Vendor contracts: DCYF has multi-million dollar contracts with two big nonprofit social services agencies it chose to manage and provide services to kids and families. The question is what to do with those contracts when the extension runs out, end of December. Under consideration is bringing more of those services back in house, or reshaping the contracts to fit the needs of the kids and families served.
- Training: It takes many months to train an entry level DCYF social worker at a program run by Rhode Island College. DCYF officials want to see if they can speed that up and get more caseworkers on the ground faster.
- Court schedules: DCYF and Family Court judges are in conversation about scheduling court dates closer to together and communicating with each other more frequently about the options available to children in the state’s care. Right now, families wait months between appointments, delaying efforts to reunify them.
- Technology is still a sticking point for DCYF. The computer system is 17 years old. In order to be compatible with newer, mobile technologies, the servers have had to be upgraded twice just to catch up. It’s not clear when new computers or cell phones or anything else will be in the hands of the social workers who need them.
- Group homes: Working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, DCYF is coming up with plans for each of the 45 children under the age of 12 who are currently in group homes. This is the least desirable setting for young kids in the care of the state, but it’s been difficult to find alternatives for them. Now, it’ s a top priority. Ditto for the more than 80 adolescents who are in residential placements out of state.
- A new DCYF web site is slated to go live this Fall.
- Caseloads are still higher than nationally recommended averages for social workers – around 15 – 16 for many. Anecdotal reports put caseloads at around 19 or 20.
- There’s a big push to look into what each vendor is providing to DCYF, and how those vendors bill the agency. DCYF will begin asking vendors to justify their costs.
Worth noting: reform takes time – sometimes months, years. This is a $225 million dollar organization with more than 600 employees, responsible for thousands of vulnerable children. But there are urgent issues the agency must tackle: like keeping on top of child protective investigations, and reducing caseloads so that social workers can spend the time they need to working with families. Plus, I'd expect more revelations as auditors and consultants continue diving down financial rabbit holes in the organization.