Dave Fallon: How common is it for the DCYF to place children with relatives like Mary, the subject of our first story in this series? 

Sofia Rudin: It's actually very common. It's their top preference of placement. You might think of foster care as being in homes with strangers or in group home facilities. But actually, as of April 2019, two thirds of kids in foster homes in Rhode Island are placed with a family member or a close family friend. 

Dave Fallon: How is drug abuse, especially the opioid crisis, affecting the foster care system? 

Sofia Rudin: Nationwide the impact has been really big. Since 2012, the number of kids in foster care has been rising. (Although, a report out last week from the Department of Health and Human Services showed that the number of kids in foster care fell slightly in 2018.) Experts have tied that to the increase in drug abuse and specifically the opioid epidemic. But drugs are only one reason that kids do end up in the system. According to the data Kids Count collects in Rhode Island, lack of supervision and exposure to domestic violence are much more common types of neglect. 

Dave Fallon: So let's talk about the DCYF. How much help do families get from the state of Rhode Island? 

Sofia Rudin: So families get financial support from the state. The standard board rate is about $25 per child per day, depending on the age of the child and other needs that they have. And each family has a caseworker assigned from the state. Mary had a very good experience with her caseworkers. She was really able to rely on them for support. I've heard from other families who said their caseworkers didn't visit as often as they were supposed to, or who had a lot of turnover in which caseworker was responsible for their foster kids. And that really goes back to one of the big driving issues that DCYF has been grappling with, which is high caseloads. The average is 17, but many caseworkers have far more families than that on their caseload, which means even more individual children. So I think it's worth asking the question: how can one person be responsible for 30 plus kids distributed around the state? 

Dave Fallon: Any sense of how the DCYF is approaching that caseload situation? 

Sofia Rudin: This summer, they announced a wave of new hires that they would be bringing on. They have done that. They have made those hires, and they have filled some existing open positions. But so far, they haven't seen the decline in caseloads that they were hoping to see. Those changes may come down the line. But, honestly, the caseload problem goes beyond the caseworkers who support families day-to-day. It's also in the Licensing Department. It's also in Child Protective Services. So it's a widespread issue at the department. 

Dave Fallon: The DCYF itself has been the focus of controversy for years and years. And I'm wondering now with no director, controversy continues. What do you see in the immediate future? 

Sofia Rudin: Well, I think that the lack of a director right now makes the immediate future hard to know. At the moment, the department is being led by Kevin Aucoin, who has been the chief legal counsel for the department for decades. But his mandate is to keep the department operating, not to make any major changes. That's all really on hold until a new director is hired. The Secretary of Rhode Island's Executive Office Of Health and Human Safety, Womazetta Jones, on Friday said they're still currently reviewing resumes for that position. So it could be months before we know who that person is and what direction they'll take the department in. 

Dave Fallon: And there are some recommended changes the DCYF is considering following the death of a 9-year-old girl in Warwick in state care, right? 

Sofia Rudin: Yes, there are. There were 21 recommendations from the state's Child Advocate, Jennifer Griffith. There was a House Oversight Committee hearing in August where the department reported on some changes they've made. But the Child Advocate and lawmakers weren't satisfied with the progress they heard from the department. We will be speaking to Griffith as part of this series and we'll get a updated report from her on how the department is doing. And we'll be looking more closely at some of those overarching issues in the coming weeks. But the focus of this series is really on the families, the kids caught up in this system day-to-day, and how they are coping with the uncertainty.