Governor Gina Raimondo has called for a complete overhaul of the state’s child welfare agency. A new audit has found DCYF failed to follow basic accounting and purchasing practices. With more about the problems and the proposed fixes, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Kristin Gourlay joins news director Elisabeth Harrison in the studio.
Kristin Gourlay joins Elisabeth Harrison to break down the results of a new audit of DCYF, problems at the agency, and a new plan to fix them. State officials say they want to provide better services to families and kids at the time and place they need them.
- Link to the Bureau of Audits report on DCYF
- Link to Senate task force report on DCYF's contracts with outside service providers
ELIS: Kristin, pretty troubling news from this new audit of DCYF. No financial controls in place to monitor contracts and billing. They haven’t been following state purchasing regulations. Tens of millions of dollars in contracts signed, but very little accounting of what exactly was delivered for that money. What is going on?
KRIS: It’s a mess. Those are the exact words of an expert Governor Gina Raimondo has called in from Harvard’s Kennedy School - Jeff Liebman - to help turn this agency around.
What’s going on is that this agency has spent years in crisis mode, and I’m told no one’s every really stood back and taken a top-to-bottom look at how the agency operates, where the money goes, what workers need to do their jobs, and most importantly, whether kids and families are getting the right services at the right time in the right place. They’ve been signing contracts without much financial oversight at all. Sometimes buying the same service from different vendors. In many cases, they have not followed state purchasing rules. Like you have to put certain contracts out for a competitive bid, or you have to have a purchase order. And no one was looking at the bills from vendors and saying, ok, did we get the services we asked for? Does this match up with the contract? But most contracts had no performance measures, so they have no idea whether they’ve spent the money wisely.
ELIS: So DCYF contracts with outside organizations to deliver all kinds of services to families that enter the system. Case management. Foster homes. Medical care, counseling. So has there been any misuse of funds?
KRIS: Not necessarily. No one’s saying there’s been any criminal activity or wrong doing. But the lack of control means there is the potential for misuse of funds – that’s a direct quote from the audit. Mostly it’s led to inefficient use of funds and major cost overruns.
I should say that Jamia McDonald, whom Governor Gina Raimondo has appointed to turn DCYF around, says the agency is staffed with lots of dedicated people. Front line staff are doing their best. But the mismanagement – and it’s not just financial – has kept the agency in crisis mode and limited the ability of frontline caseworkers to really do as much for families as they’d like to.
ELIS: Kristin Gourlay, you’re working on a series right now about child welfare in Rhode Island. We’ll be seeing that in August. To report this series you just rode along with a caseworker to get a feel for what it’s like on the front lines, working with families and kids. What did you see?
KRIS: I saw the consequences of running of out of money. Caseworkers spend a lot of time out in the field, visiting kids and families, checking in, coordinating services. The caseworker I followed has to use her own cell phone. She drives her own car. She has to borrow or scrounge for car seats if she has to drive kids to appointments. She carries this stack of index cards and paper files around with her to keep on top of her cases. But the most difficult part of her job is the number of cases she has to juggle. She’s got nearly 20, and has at times had as many as 25. The recommended case load is about 14.
ELIS: And that's one of several issues an earlier report from a senate task force found. High caseloads, a lack of updated, mobile technology for caseworkers. In the minute or so we have left, tell us about some of the other aspects of the turnaround plan for DCYF. Is there a plan to reduce those caseloads, to get them cell phones – basics?
KRIS: The turnaround plan is meant to deal with the some immediate crises. The first plan is to get financial controls in place. They’re going to have to re-bid most of the contracts. They’re going out to all the community service providers and asking for their help in detailing the services they’ve been providing. And they’re going to make sure the department is complying with basic state purchasing regulations.
There’s going to be a big emphasis on collecting and analyzing data to figure out where the greatest needs are and how to serve families and kids with the right services at the right time. That includes trying to get more kids out of group homes and into foster families – a huge challenge.
And they’re trying to make the whole organization more efficient so families get the services they need as soon as possible and time isn’t lost because of slow computers or a lack of communication between agencies.
ELIS: Kristin Gourlay covers health care for Rhode Island Public Radio. Kristin, thanks. We’ll look forward to your series later in August.